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Viktoria and Jael introduce #SultrySunday.
Idris is one of the nicest vampires I write, so I thought him fitting to kick off #SappySaturday.
Azar, his beautiful bride, was resplendent in green.
As their hands were bound together with the handfasting ribbon, a sense of tranquility and destiny settled over him. Soon, their child would be born, and he would come into his full power as king.
Courtiers, from Seelie and Unseelie Courts, wished them well. After dancing, Fechin led a breathless Azar to the head table and held out her chair.
"Are you happy, maité anam?" He couldn't help asking. There was a bit more sparkle to her, slightly less sadness.
Azar sighed. For an eternal moment, he didn't breathe as she hesitated.
Her beautiful green eyes studied him, then she finally spoke. "Yes. You win. I am happy, and I love you, Fechin."
His joyous smile lit his black eyes, and he leaned toward her upturned face intent on kissing her lips swollen.
Thunderous booms roared across the sky. Fechin jerked his head up. Overhead, beyond the blue sky, a layer of grey fog hovered.
Fechin swore. The fog parted, revealing a second layer of blue sky.
"What's happening, Fechin?" Azar's voice trembled. Her fear-filled eyes darted between the sky and his face.
The protective shields around Inisfail, and the fog that shrouded them from the world at large, were being targeted. "The wards, maité anam. We are under attack."
She screamed and doubled over as she collapsed to the ground. The child!
"Maité anam!" Fechin dropped to his knees beside her. For the first time, conflict over where his primary duty lay made him hesitate. He owed everyone living in Inisfail his protection, but to fulfill that obligation, he'd have to leave Azar.
Didn't he have a greater duty to her, and the babe? Azar carried the future of Inisfail within her.
Hundreds of lightning bolts struck the fog between layers of blue skies, tearing it to shreds. Each felt like a whip lashing him. Red lines and cuts formed on his skin.
A few strikes came through, hitting the ground and forest, setting trees aflame, but giving him the flavor of the magic attacking.
Her magic had a familiar, repugnant taint. The banished were always a threat. No Fae wanted to leave their home, where their power was strongest. She'd never tried to return, though.
Fae screamed while others stared, dumbfounded. Azar trembled in his arms. Anguish and indecision tore at him.
"Go," Azar managed to get out through her clenched teeth. "Protect Inisfail."
She was right. If Inisfail's protections fell, Azar was at greater risk. She was strong.
Why was the Queen of Winter attacking? Had Beira discovered he'd set Shisti aside? There would be a reckoning for that one day, but he hadn't expected it so soon, or from this quarter.
Fechin changed to his raven form and flew toward the storm. He rose into the sky, waves of power emanating from him as the wards pulled magic through him to renew.
Almost casually, a streak of lightning broke away from the fog and struck him like swatting a gnat. The blow hit like a hammer, sending him reeling, but he flapped furiously and recovered.
He intercepted the next bolt, letting the lightning hit him and taking the damage. Again and again, he took the assault, but he was only one against the hundreds of strikes. The ones he missed hurt more than the physical torment of the ones shredding his magic.
More bolts followed the first, one after another, breaking through his protections one layer at a time. The Queen of Winter had never been this strong before. How had she channeled so much power? Rather than weakening, her magic battered him, seeming to feed on itself and grow instead of diminishing.
Fechin screamed his defiance and pushed back. He had to strengthen the protections. Protect Azar. Thwart Beira's attack.
The witch's magic felt limitless while his was finite. Until he was king, he could act as a conduit, but the magic of Inisfail wasn't his to wield as he pleased.
A lightning bolt shattered his final protection. The broken spell ate into him like shards of glass ground into his soul. Agony paralyzed him. Another strike set fire to him. The acrid scent of burning flesh and feathers filled his nose.
Body limp, Fechin turned human. The flames extinguished, but he fell.
His ravens burst from the tower and forest, coming to his aid as they soared into the sky. Each of them caught part of him or his ragged clothing in their talons and beaks. Flapping their wings in unison, the flock slowed his fall.
The birds deposited him in front of Azar. His skin burned and forks of red lightning tattooed him. Blood flowed from his eyes, ears, and nose, obscured his vision, left a bitter, metallic taste on his tongue, and dripped onto the grass. Azar's calming presence acted like a balm as his body shook uncontrollably.
Fechin reached for his maité anam as she collapsed. She cradled her middle in her arms. Their child. He groaned and tried to marshall his energy.
Magic diminished, his body jerked in reaction as bolts of lightning continued to strike the protective magic around Inisfail.
Azar screamed again.
He pushed himself to his feet using the last of his will and staggered toward Azar.
Everywhere wards weakened, splintered, and shattered, each breaking a part of him. The protective fog vanished. Huge slashes opened into his magic. Bleeding wounds that would not heal.
Tears appeared in the sky — long narrow slits that widened into gaps. More holes opened. In the forest. In the mountains. In the swamp. On the plains.
Not just holes in the protective magic. Portals. Gateways to other places.
Inisfail wasn't protected from anything now.
Another tear opened. This one was close. So close!
It opened right behind Azar. Fechin fought to get to her, losing his balance. He forced himself to his hands and knees and crawled.
She reached for him. Fechin struggled to lift his arm. Scrambled desperately to rally his magic. The ragged scraps sliced and burned him. Fragmented, his magic wouldn't flow. It pooled in smaller eddies, cut off from itself.
His fingertips brushed Azar's, and for a fraction of a second, his magic and strength surged to fullness. The yawning portal expanded and reached for Azar. The edges were already touching her.
New magic wrapped around her. It coiled like serpents, slithering and writhing, forming a cocoon that cut her off from him. Her terrified green eyed pleaded for help. Tears tracked down her face, staining her cheeks with sorrow. She lay curled on her side, arms wrapped around her middle.
A burst of energy slid Azar backward, breaking the tenuous connection between his fingertips and hers. Like the maw of a colossal beast, the abyss slammed closed, swallowing his maité anam.
The portal vanished, taking his wife and child.
"Azar!" Fechin bellowed in impotent rage.
Pain seared his already raw throat.
Small hands prodded and pulled at him, dragging him over the ground. The brownies. They were taking him away from where Azar had disappeared. Fechin thrashed, but so weakened, all he could do was twitch. He couldn't leave the last place Azar had been. It was his only hope of following her. Of bringing her back.
"You need to get inside!"
"You'll die if you stay here."
"Inisfail needs you!."
"We need you to be king now more than ever!"
The brownies' voices tumbled into his mind.
Fechin couldn't make himself protest. The energy required to form words was beyond him. He couldn't even blink as he stared at the place where Azar had vanished, taking their child with her.
The brownies were stronger than their spindly, child-like bodies suggested. In no time, they dragged him through the door of Raven Castle.
The moment he crossed the threshold, strength trickled into him. Not enough to continue the battle, but he wouldn't die.
Fechin braced himself and rolled to his hands and knees. Blood dripped from his nose and splashed to the stone floor. Vision wavering, unconsciousness closing in at the edges, he stood, aimed himself at the door, and lumbered toward it.
"No!" a brownie yelled. "You musn't —"
At the threshold, Fechin slammed into a barrier that threw him across the chamber. He slammed into a wall. Bones in his already battered body snapped, and he slid to the stone floor in a heap.
The brownies were on him again, straightening his limbs and shoving a cushion under his head.
"You need to rest. Regain your strength."
"Inisfail is wounded."
"Until the magic recovers, you can't leave."
Couldn't leave? But Azar needed him!
The smooth edge of a cup pressed against his lips. Something blessedly cool and liquid filled his mouth. He swallowed without thought, soothing his aching throat.
A heaviness stole over him. Sleeping elixir. No! He didn't have time to sleep! But the potent magic had him within its hold and darkness closed in on him.
He'd worked so hard to keep Azar in. Now he was the prisoner and Azar was… somewhere. With so many portals opened, she could have been taken anywhere.
I will always bring you home, maité anam.
He hadn't thought he'd have to do it so soon. And trapped as he was, he had no idea how he could find her.
Magic in Shisti's blood heated and raced through her, making her miss a step and catch her balance with her hands braced on a table.
It was active and buzzed through her magic.
With my blood, I curse yours to know only short lives filled with pain. Joy will turn bitter, and to know love means death.
But it shouldn't have done anything like this. For the curse to work, Azar must have felt genuine happiness, not the resigned acceptance she'd exhibited so far. Had the stupid girl actually fallen in love with Fechin? She'd been so determined not to!
Moments ago, Shisti had been watching the farcical wedding reception playing out in the meadow. Now the world trembled, shaken to its very foundations.
Inisfail itself was being torn asunder. The protections shattered one by one. The whole realm would be revealed and vulnerable to attack.
Her heart leapt. She could get out. There wasn't much time. Everything except for her magic related possessions could be left behind to burn.
She rushed around her suite to gather her knife and bowl. The vials of Azar's blood. Those were important. She raced toward the cabinet, the spell to unlock it on her lips.
To know love means death.
Shisti stopped short.
The idea of killing Azar, or leaving her to die, held no appeal. For the first time in decades, fear for someone other than herself made Shisti's heart pound. Azar didn't deserve death for being foolish. It was hardly the first time a woman had loved the wrong man.
But the magic in a curse, once uttered, had to run its course.
Or the magic had to go somewhere else.
Shisti closed her eyes to better visualize the tendrils of energy, and pulled as much of the curse back into herself as she could. For a time, her own happiness would turn bitter, but when was the last time she'd truly been happy?
A thousand spikes of agony stabbed into her, and her vision greyed. Splinters dug into the flesh under her fingernails as she clawed at the rough, wooden tabletop to remain on her feet.
Her magic was too potent. She'd never be able to take the whole curse back without endangering her babies.
The door opened with enough force to slam into the wall, and the rescued Fae women rushed into the room.
'Shisti, are you all right?"
Their chattering cut into her concentration. She could only shake her head, afraid if she unclenched her jaw, a scream would emerge.
Focus. She had to focus.
The wards around Inisfail shattered one by one. That wasn't her magic! Hers should have only worked from the inside to let Azar out.
Lightning struck. Huge, heavy bolts that tore the protective fog apart. That was her mother's magic. Why would the Queen of Winter attack Inisfail?
More of the curse returned, filling Shisti energy with a nauseating sludge as it pushed against her magic. She swallowed hard, attempting to slow the curse.
A siphoning on her daughter shot pain through her womb. Shocked, Shisti let go of the table, clutching her stomach as she slid toward the floor.
Beira. Her mother was using Shisti's daughter to power the spell attacking Inisfail.
Hands caught Shisti as her legs folded beneath her. She threw a shield around her babies, nearly draining herself as she put all her power into it.
The Queen of Winter's magic increased, turning icier in her fury at Shisti's resistance. The curse's toxicity built, eating away at her defenses like acid.
A war on two magical fronts was too much. With a mental apology to Azar, Shisti released her grip on the curse to reinforce the shield.
She couldn't help it. The scream she'd been holding in poured out.
"Let us help, Shisti. What can we do?"
Tears blurred her vision. From pain or the offer to help, she didn't know. "Too… much… magic."
"Take what you need from us."
They had no idea what they were offering. The old Shisti wouldn't have hesitated to put the polluted curse magic into the unsuspecting women so carelessly offering themselves to her. The old Shisti would never have taken her curse back into herself in the first place.
The new Shisti, the one with friends, and a newly awakened conscience, couldn't do it.
Beira pulled on them again, drawing magic toward the forest. Portals ripped through the ruined protections of Inisfail.
Shisti screamed. Every second the gateways remained open drained her magic. What was her mother doing?
Her daughter was fading. All of Shisti's determination to protect her children was for naught. She felt herself fading too, blackness creeping in at the edges of her mind.
Love burst from her son in a bright, starburst explosion, along with innate magic, retrieving Shisti and her daughter from the brink.
Shisti grasped the lifeline.
With love and magic given, accepted, and returned, energy and life returned. Her son had saved them all. Her magic began to build from nearly empty levels.
Taking the Fae women up on their offer, Shisti reached for their energy and took in as much as each of them could live without. The women gasped and dropped to their knees.
Bolstered, Shisti shoved her mother away, renewed the shield around her babies, and leveled out the sludge-ish curse magic.
Absorbing her own curse left her weakened, but with the wards broken, there was still hope of escape.
Shisti used the connection Beira had forced to let her magic ride the drifting currents of her mother's, briefly touching each of the rips into Inisfail.
One led to yawning darkness. Another somewhere icy. The third to a forest full of the ancient magic of a wrathful goddess.
There. A portal to a desert of pale, golden sands with hot winds. Shisti sent a fragment of magic through and recognized the familiar taste of Djinn energy.
Shisti seized control of the portal and dragged it through Inisfail to Azar. Fechin was there, diminished but still interfering. What was left of his magic blocked hers. The portal couldn't get to Azar.
There was no time to waste. Inisfail wasn't going to be safe for anyone anymore. Too many doors had been opened. Fechin couldn't even protect himself now.
Growling, Shisti wrapped Azar in as much of a cushion as she could, and shoved her backward, into the gateway, safely outside the broken shelter of Inisfail.
The portal tried to snap closed, but Shisti didn't let it go. It was fragile. Caution was needed. She coaxed and guided the door to freedom toward her rooms.
Azar was gone.
She'd been a warm presence. Her sudden absence left a cold emptiness Shisti didn't like.
With the target of the curse no longer nearby, the potency of the magic Shisti had to reabsorb slackened, and she sagged in grateful relief. She propped her back against the wall as she tried to level out her power.
Where could she go? Not her father's court. The Queen of Winter wouldn't be welcoming after the fight.
Azar. Shisti couldn't go to her friend because of the curse, but the Fae could all go with Azar.
The portal floated through Shisti's balcony door — a glimmering little more than the size of her fist. With patience in contrast to the thundering of her heart and a sense of foreboding presaging some unknown doom, Shisti teased the portal bigger, an inch at a time.
It felt too delicate and wanted to close. It wouldn't be stable for much longer.
"Go," Shisti ordered her companions. "None of us will be safe here after today. Hurry."
"Come with us." A Nixie crouched beside her. "We don't want to go without you."
Shisti shook her head. "I can't. The curse magic won't let Azar and I be in the same place. Find Azar on the other side. I'll come to you when I can break the curse completely."
It should be possible, but she needed time.
The Fae women kissed Shisti's cheek and hugged her.
"Thank you for saving us. We'll never forget the debt we owe you."
They rushed through the portal before Shisti could argue they'd already repaid their imagined debt.
Shisti shoved magic at the gateway to redirect the destination as far away from Arabi as she could make it. The view remained full of sand. Despair filled her. Maybe she lacked the energy to go very far. She couldn't remain in such close proximity to Azar or the curse would never relent.
She'd have to stay in Inisfail. Her head felt too heavy to lift anymore and sagged.
A breeze chilled her skin. Shisti jerked her head back up and peered closer. This sand was more white than gold. A jungle of green vegetation and trees loomed. Waves surged onto the beach.
Shisti sent tendrils of magic through. Everything felt unfamiliar. This was nowhere near Arabi. Relief and happiness filled her. No one would look for her here.
The portal was already closing and almost too small for her to get through. Leaving everything behind, Shisti crawled forward, reaching for her freedom.
A giant, rough hand closed around her ankle and dragged her away. "No!" She kicked backward, desperate to escape the iron grip. "Release me!"
"Going somewhere?" Vilkos' voice sent a shudder through her. "I don't think so, mate."
Her concentration ruined, the spell broke, and the portal closed with a pop.
Shisti let her forehead fall to the floor, holding her breath to keep a sob inside her.
Happiness turned bitter.
Cover reveal inside!
Echo and Lachlan's story can be read as standalone, but if you follow the Vampires & Strygoi Witches series, it ties in with Viktoria's Shadow, Bijou's Cure, and Shadowy.
Clad in moonlight, Shisti knelt before the fire in her room and prepared to weave Azar's blood into the wards around Raven Castle and Inisfail. She'd promised the woman, after all, and even come to like her.
Enough to set her free rather than murder her, anyway.
The idea of disappointing Azar made some tiny bit of conscience inside Shisti uncomfortable. She hadn't thought any of her conscience had survived after her time in her father's court, nor had she felt guilt or regret for as long as she could remember.
Azar called them friends. In Shisti's experience, friends were just those who hadn't betrayed her yet, but Fechin's new plaything didn't have guile in her. She'd grown up feeling loved and protected. It never occurred to her that those around her might be plotting against her behind her back, or lying to her face.
There were more than a few in court who held grudges against Fechin, and targeting Azar would feed their revenge. Shisti had found herself in the unexpected, and ironic, position of protecting Fechin's woman. The man was so addle brained he missed clues he shouldn't.
The larger part of Shisti scoffed at the idea of living in such a state of innocence, but a small part of her couldn't help her curiosity. Though it was far too late for her, that was the life she desperately wanted for her daughter.
So, Shisti studied Azar, trying to imagine her daughter's face. Pretended Azar's genuine smiles, peals of laughter, and easy way with people belonged to her unborn daughter.
Thinking of her baby sparked magic between them, bringing Shisti's attention back to the work at hand.
The wards weren't hers, and changing them from keeping Azar in to letting Azar out wasn't easy. They needed a delicate touch — requiring a level of intense concentration that left Shisti exhausted, with sore eyes and an achy head.
She glanced at the Nymphs and Nixies kneeling around her. Nudity didn't bother beings so close to nature, in fact, they preferred a lack of clothing. Firelight glimmered off the faint blue and green scales of the three Nixies. Their hair was slicked back and dark, like it was always wet. The five slender brown-skinned Nymphs held hands and left their hair loose to blow wildly in the breezes Shisti's magic generated.
When she'd robbed Vilkos and his band of degenerates of the women they'd planned to rape, she hadn't given any thought as to what would become of them. They were supposed to disappear from her notice, like birds freed from a cage.
However, most of them attached themselves to her. More friends, maybe. This sort of friendship she understood. They mistakenly thought her some sort of hero, or that they owed her a debt. She hadn't acted to help the women so much as to rob the men, but Fae abhorred the idea of owing a debt to anyone. She'd not asked for anything — it was reward enough to irk Vilkos and the Wild Hunt.
Although most Fae didn't like witches, these women were fascinated by her magic, and in exchange for lessons, volunteered their energy for Shisti to draw on. The Nixies and Nymphs had plenty of wild earth and water magic compatible with hers.
Shisti dipped her fingers into the bowl of Azar's blood and drew the symbols and runes of her spell in the air as she chanted. Her magic turned the blood into a mist that drifted toward her window, seeking weak spots. Smaller than droplets, the mist seeped into fine cracks and imperfections.
With Azar's blood in the ward, Shisti guided the energy to the runes and symbols comprising the spell. Adding a tiny smudge to an angle, an extension to a straight line, or an additional thickness to the delicate sweep of a curve, she gradually changed the purpose of the magic.
The wards accepted Azar's blood, sending a slight quiver through the protections around the castle. The magic thinned. Shisti gave a tentative push. The barrier allowed her fingers to sink in, passing nearly all the way through until it bowed slightly. She pulled away before the magic snapped back at her.
Shisti released her power. "That's all for today, ladies. I'm going to get some rest."
The Nymphs and Nixies adjourned to their quarters — rooms next door to Shisti's, easily appropriated since no one wanted to live anywhere near her.
Alone, she cradled the slight swelling of her abdomen. As she often did, Shisti sent love and magic to her daughter and received love and magic in return. "Did you see how to do that, little one? Soon Azar will be able to leave the castle."
A thrill of magic was reply enough. Unfortunately, her daughter also loved the boy. Shisti tried hard to ignore him. He reminded her of Vilkos, and being forced to submit to the will of another. Forced to bear his child.
She licked the streaks of Azar's blood from the fingers of the other. It sent a hot buzz through her, no matter how many times she allowed herself the indulgence. Her daughter quivered in excitement and satisfaction as the magic warmed her.
Fortunately, she'd amassed a stockpile she could savor after Azar escaped.
Her daughter — sweet, pure, innocent, and with no understanding of the ways of males — shared the love and magic with her brother. Shisti tried to prevent it, afraid the boy would be an abyss who returned nothing, or worse, demand the magic and drain her daughter.
To her shock, this time the boy returned the same emotions and power to his sister, then sent a tentative strand of hope and love drifting toward Shisti.
Unexpected shame filled her. The child was innocent of wrongdoing. He hadn't asked for Vilkos to be his father, and she'd grown up without the benefit of being loved and protected. Could she do that to her child?
While Vilkos was his father, she was his mother. She remembered longing to be loved. There was still enough hurt, confusion, and resentment in her heart she couldn't wish that treatment on an innocent.
Being around Azar was making her sentimental.
Shisti took hold of fragile hope from the boy and embraced it, sending love in return. As if he'd been waiting for that acceptance, the boy, her son, flooded her with joy.
Curious, Shisti sent magic to him. His response was slower, and a bit clumsier than her daughter's, but he shared magic with her. The talent in him would need to be nurtured.
Sharing magic among the three of them chased away her weariness and brought a smile to her lips. She couldn't leave any child to Vilkos, his insane father, or the Wild Hunt.
Coming to an impulsive decision, Shisti picked up her knife and sliced both palms. Pressing her bloody hands to her belly, she whispered a chant to give her babies strength and help them grow faster. She monitored them for any sign of distress, but they each absorbed her spell eagerly.
She could buy some time this way. Vilkos would think she had five more months of pregnancy, but she could reduce it a few days at a time over the coming weeks.
Picking up her knife again, Shisti selected a vial of Azar's blood and moved to the balcony. Outside the castle wards she emptied the contents into her bowl and cut her palms again, mixing their blood with one finger. The wards definitely wouldn't accept Shisti's blood alone, but maybe mixed with Azar's, she could insinuate hers into the protections of Inisfail that kept everyone locked inside.
The cracks and fractures in the Inisfail fog accepted the blended blood, allowing Shisti to expand on the faults.
A few more casts should see the fogs weakened enough to free Azar. Then Shisti would free herself, and give birth to her children far from the Raven Court.
The Queen of Winter traveled on the winds high above Alba and the ocean. Across the sea, the protective fog around Inisfail blew this way and that, stretching and thinning to reveal glimpses of the protected territory beyond. Her spell had been busily undermining the wards.
One more well crafted spell would fracture them.
Shisti, and the daughter in her womb, would provide an extra source of magic if needed. They'd shared so much power between them, they'd already grown stronger than Beira had hoped. The infant she'd created would be a witch to rival even her magic one day.
Traces of Shisti's blood twisted through the wards. So, she'd had enough and wanted to leave. That was new. And perfect. What Shisti wanted to use to get out, would provide an additional way in. Half of that blood had come from Beira, and offered a tangible hold she could use.
Opening her eyes, the Queen of Winter came back to her physical self and smiled.
Artemis would be pleased. Beira rose from her bed and pulled on her dress. She strode through the icy corridors of her palace to the wintry courtyard, then out the gate into the snow-adorned forest.
She found the Goddess of the Hunt in a meadow, one arm extended, the other bent, aiming her bow at her target somewhere in the forest beyond. Her chariot awaited use, empty harnesses trailing over the ground.
"Now is the time. The protections have never been thinner. Once your Amazons arrive, I'll send you to Inisfail, and your army can hunt all the satyrs Gaia wants."
Artemis fired her arrow, not bothering to watch its flight. She unstrung her bow, stowed it in her quiver, and raised the hunting horn from her belt to blow a clear, ringing note. One by one, her six golden deer emerged from the woods. She moved around the animals and coaxed them into their harnesses.
Beira stood well back from the beasts. More than one person had been nipped or shoved around by the vicious racks of antlers.
With her deer in their places, Artemis climbed into her chariot and picked up the reins. "It will take me a few hours to get home, but Gaia can open a gateway for us to return." She waved a hand around the meadow. "Will you allow her magic to manifest here?"
Beira nodded. It would be easier to redirect an already open portal than to create an entirely new one. "Gaia and her magic have ever been welcome in my territory." She bent to pick up a stick, snapped it in half, and tossed one part into the center of the clearing.
She handed the remainder to Artemis. "Gaia can use this to find the other half."
"Thank you." Artemis tucked the broken stick into her belt, called to her deer, and they took off, climbing into the sky.
As Beira watched her go, strong but intangible hands slid up her bare arms and under the straps of her dress. The material pulled away from her skin and whispered down her body to pool at her feet.
Truly, there was no better man to enjoy physical pleasure with than the son of an incubus. And when an incubus freely offered his heart… She felt something that lit up her world, giving her the warmth that the Queen of Winter craved, but had no business wanting.
She leaned into his embrace, eagerly offering him what he wanted. He came to her so rarely anymore, and she was never sure how long he could stay.
"You found me, my love."
"You're mine," he said, like that was enough, his voice little more than a growl.
It was enough from the one man who thought of her as woman before witch. He desired her for pleasure before magic.
Her lover lay her down in the snow and rose above her. He was only a shade of himself since Ymir had ripped him from the world, but she could add the sienna tone of his skin, the purple hue and fierce need in his eyes, and the silky texture of long hair the shade of midnight.
Beira sighed as he covered her and kissed down her throat before biting, the sting soothed away by his tongue. He continued a line down to her breasts. Her nipples puckered, painfully sensitive in the chill air and anticipation. She groaned as he palmed them.
"You have missed me, cariad," he crooned, pressing one thigh so it parted her naked legs, the thick muscle hard against her core. "Not allowed another to touch you?"
He ground against her, arousing her so easily. The pressure between her legs consumed her senses.
"No one touches me except for you." No other lover would satisfy her. She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Come back to me."
"Soon, my cariadon," he murmured.
Beira locked away the sudden sadness. It had been so long. He always said soon, but he never returned to her. She distracted herself by riding his thigh, his breath hot against her breast.
His lips teased one hard nipple while his fingertips tortured the other. He swirled his tongue around the pebbled bud, teeth scraping over sensitive skin. He groaned, sending vibrations over her nipple, straight down into her core. Her hips writhed searching for more contact along his thigh.
He moved down, dipping his head between her thighs, and slid his tongue between her folds, parting them. He buried his tongue into her pussy, stroking her, working her into a frenzy.
His tongue swirled around her clit, and he slid a finger inside her. Her body tensed as an orgasm built, threatening to consume her. She tangled her fingers in his dark hair and pulled him away. It wasn't time to come. Not yet.
There was something wild and freeing about her stolen time with him. All that existed in the world was the two of them. It had to be enough for now. She reached for his cock. It was hard under her touch, the skin silky.
Beira circled her fingers over the turgid, velvety head, teasing the gleaming drop of liquid that appeared. His breath caught as she drew her palm along his shaft and stroked him. With every pass of her hand, he pressed harder between her legs.
"I can't take much more," he growled. "It's been too long."
Beira smiled up at him. "Then don't. You've kept me waiting for so long already."
He dropped ardent kisses to her neck and breasts, making her shiver. She savored every gasp and groan she got out of him. He forbade her any other lovers, but wherever he was, he had none, either. He needed the contact as much as she did.
Her grip around his cock tightened, and he threw back his head, teeth gritted.
"What you do to me." He drew back.
She groaned at the loss of his comforting bulk atop her, but he turned her over.
The patient, teasing lover vanished, replaced by a being of pure need and hunger. When he lifted her hips, she braced herself on her elbows and her knees, readying for him as best she could.
He thrust into her, making them both moan, then drew back, only to drive deep again.
Beira reared back to meet his motions, and pressure built low in her belly. With every thrust, he stoked the fire between them higher. Her skin felt aflame, and he was the only one who could quench the burn.
His fingers dug into her hips. He reached underneath her with one hand, slackening his pace. She moaned when his skilled fingers found the nub at the core of her, rubbing it with a touch that was at once skilled and rough.
The deep tug of desire grew, but she resisted it, wanting it to go on.
Her lover was not a man to tolerate resistance. While she irrationally hoped if she didn't climax, their encounter wouldn't end, he thought the more she orgasmed for him, the longer they could be together.
He redoubled his efforts. Between his body slamming into her and his fingers deftly arousing her, she had no defense. In that moment, the witch was gone, replaced by the woman.
Her moan echoed through the trees, and a deep, primal pleasure seized her from head to toe. Her body arched, muscles shaking from the orgasm that he had just given her.
Waves of sensation drawn out to edge into pain washed over her, and his hands pulled her hard to him, as he spilled inside her.
This was the way it was meant to finish — him giving her his essence, and her feeling a kind of elusive peace. He kissed between her shoulder blades and down the bumps of her spine, then he pulled away.
Eyes closed, Beira lay perfectly still, feeling the last ghostly caress down her spine again. When she opened her eyes, he would be gone. If she waited, maybe he would return. At the least, she could delay the acknowledgement that she was alone once more.
She allowed the single tear to slip down her cheek. "Merzhin, where are you?"
Wherever Ymir had sent Merzhin, she hadn't been able to find him. It was one of a handful of times magic had failed her.
The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and powerful magic rippled over her skin.
The Amazons were arriving.
Beira sighed, opened her eyes, and rose to dress.
In the meadow, loose snow swirled. The broken stick rose from the ground. A line of Gaia's magic formed a zigzag rent in the air. The second half of the stick slid through and reunited with its mate. Ripples of nature magic pulsed from the repaired stick in ever expanding circles.
The portal opened with a final explosive push.
Artemis came through, the six golden deer pulling her chariot. She'd replaced the skimpy, mock armor she favored in Beira's court with her fighting armor and her chariot boasted a great number of blades and spiky protrusions.
Behind the Goddess of the Hunt, Amazons marched out of the portal and formed neat ranks. The women carried swords, shields, and spears, and wore fighting leathers with metal breastplates, hair either cut short or caught up in braids.
Catching the edges of the portal, Beira wove her winter magic into its periphery. Raw nature magic flowed over her, mixing readily with her energy.
"That's all of us," Artemis called.
Beira, deep into her magic, gave a half distracted nod. She formed a vortex around her. Thunder boomed as she raised her hammer and gathered pure lightning.
She spun and aimed all her power at Inisfail.
"Would you like to wear white?" Smiley held out the full skirt of a gown hanging in Azar's closet. The three brownies who had taken her care as their responsibility were more excited than she was about her wedding.
Wear white? Azar held in her snort. She'd been thoroughly ravished every night since Fechin kidnapped her. And afternoon. And morning. There wasn't a schedule for when Fechin wanted her. White hardly seemed appropriate. She was no innocent girl going to her wedding night. She was already pregnant!
"No. I think I'd prefer to wear a different color. Green." Dark green reminded her of the trees in her beloved forest. If her father couldn't be here, at least she'd have a small reminder of her past as she embraced her future.
Smiley turned back to the clothing, murmuring to himself. "This one is nice, isn't it?" He backed out of the closet, a dark green gown draped in his arms.
"It's perfect." Dreamy finished a braid in Azar's hair and pinned it in place.
"No boots," Bossy ordered.
"No heels," Azar countered.
"Be glad she's not insisting on trousers." Smiley offered an impish grin.
Azar had thought about it, but she'd learned about picking her battles during her time at Raven Castle.
The brownies helped her put on the flowing, long-sleeved green dress embroidered in swirling patterns with silver and gold thread. With the hemline brushing the floor, no one would see her shoes.
Mischief and Tricks flew through the window carrying red and black flowers woven in a wreath that they placed atop Azar's head. More ravens brought shiny earrings, bracelets, and a necklace.
Gifts from Fechin, no doubt. She put them on. Sometimes she felt like nothing more than a toy that he liked to see dressed in shiny things, but today she stifled the urge to feel resentment.
Fechin was a king. It would hardly be appropriate for his bride to show up for her wedding, however short and informal a ceremony, wearing trousers and no riches.
Dreamy offered her a bouquet of more red and black flowers with a sigh. Unsure about the colors, Azar nevertheless accepted the blooms. Perhaps the Morrigan would approve. It seemed rude to refuse flowers from Fechin's mother's garden.
When the trio of brownies pushed her to stand in front of the mirror, she didn't recognize the woman staring back at her. Had she lost so much of herself in a little over a month?
"There. You're lovely." Smiley beamed.
"The most beautiful bride." Dreamy clasped her hands together and pressed them to her cheek.
"Hurry, or you'll be late." Bossy pointed to the door.
Azar followed them from the room to the bottom of the stairs, where an elegant woman wearing a formal gown in orange waited for her, holding a lacy bit of green material.
"Is that for me?" Azar reached for the veil.
The other woman held it out of reach. "It's tradition, my Lady. A happily married woman must place the veil on you, so your marriage will be happy, too."
Azar held still while the happily married stranger played her part. It was a nice gesture, but also reminded her of how alone she was here. Shisti was her only friend, but she didn't like Fechin and probably wouldn't attend the ceremony. "Thank you."
"Of course. We're all happy for you and Fechin." The woman offered a curtsey with a rustle of skirts and hurried away.
The brownies led Azar into the garden along a rose petal strewn path.
Fechin wore all black as usual, with his long hair in neat braids. He waited in the center of the arched bridge across the fish pond.
Another stranger, dressed in a hooded red robe, stood at his side. A crowd of courtiers left an aisle between them. Only a few faces were familiar from the dinners she'd attended. Everyone watched her with happiness, envy, and expectations.
Azar's heart ached as loneliness and homesickness threatened to overwhelm her. Her feet felt like boulders as she forced her smile to remain on her face and take the required steps.
When she'd been delivered into Fechin's arms, the brownies backed away, leaving her stranded.
The red-robed man placed her hand in Fechin's and wound a ribbon around them. "May your joys be as bright as the morning, and your sorrows fade in the sunlight of love. May good luck be with you wherever you go, and your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. May you always have a sunbeam to warm you, a moonbeam to charm you, and shelter each other so nothing can harm you."
Fechin slipped a golden ring onto her finger. The band depicted two hands holding a heart under a crown.
And that was it. A short ceremony. As Fechin had promised.
Music filled the air as Fechin led her onto a cleared grassy area and twirled her into a dance. "You must keep one foot on the floor at all times, or fairies might steal you away from me."
She laughed in spite of herself. "You're their king, aren't you? You could just make them give me back."
"I will always bring you home, maité anam."
Others joined them on the dance floor, and Azar found herself passed from partner to partner. Even Bossy partnered with her, and she found herself caught up in the festive mood. Her spirit lightened, and her smiles came easier.
Breathless and happy, she went with Fechin to sit at the head of the table. As they watched entertainers putting on a play in the meadow, he held her hand in his larger one, thumb stroking the sensitive skin of her inner wrist. "Are you happy, maité anam?"
Azar sighed. At this moment, she was. A part of her didn't want to admit it. Telling Fechin he'd made her happy seemed like rewarding him for kidnapping her and taking her choices away.
But she already kept a secret from him, and she didn't want to add to her guilty conscience with a lie. "Yes. You win. I am happy, and I love you, Fechin."
His joyous smile lit his black eyes, and he leaned toward her upturned face.
A series of thunderous booms roared across the sky. Azar tilted her head farther back. Overhead, beyond the blue sky, a layer of grey fog hovered.
Beside her, Fechin swore.
The fog parted, revealing a second layer of blue sky.
"What's happening, Fechin?" Was that fog what was keeping her in? Was her world under that second blue sky?
"The wards, maité anam. We are under attack."
What felt like claws raked through Azar, digging into something deep inside her and latching on. She screamed at the invasive agony. Her child!
Azar doubled over. Wrapping her arms around herself, she collapsed to her knees, then to her side, curling her knees to her chest.
"Maité anam!" Fechin dropped to his knees beside her.
Hundreds of lightning bolts struck the fog between layers of blue skies, tearing it to shreds. A few strikes came through and struck the ground and forest, setting the trees on fire. People screamed while others stared, dumbfounded.
"Go," Azar managed to get out through her clenched teeth. "Protect Inisfail."
Fechin changed to his raven form and flew toward the storm. Waves of power emanated from him as he rose into the sky.
Almost casually, a streak of lightning broke away from the fog and struck him like swatting a gnat. The blow sent him reeling, but he recovered, seemingly unharmed.
More bolts followed the first, one after another, breaking through his protections.
Body limp, Fechin turned human and fell.
Azar screamed, in her own pain and in fear for Fechin.
Ravens soared into the sky, aiming for Fechin. Each of them caught part of his clothing in their talons or beaks. Flapping their wings in unison, the flock slowed his fall.
The birds deposited Fechin in front of Azar. His body shook. Blood poured from his nose and eyes. The reek of charred skin and feathers assailed her nose.
Invisible claws dug deeper into Azar. Her blood burned, a searing sensation traveling from her fingers and toes, up her legs, and down her arms, to join under her hands, cupped over her baby.
Azar imagined she heard the infant wailing in distress, and her heart ached for the life she was powerless to protect. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she curled into a tighter ball.
Wind buffeted her back. Cool breezes soothed her fevered skin. The double blue skies and fragmented fog faded. She darted a desperate gaze to Fechin.
His eyes opened. One hand struggled to lift and reach for her. Their fingertips touched for a moment, then Fechin disappeared from view as everything burned white hot.
Fechin, in his fully raven form, flew with Mischief and Tricks, dodging their attempts to rob him of his shiny bauble, and block him as he made his way to Azar in his mother's garden. She loved to sit by the pond and watch the fish.
For the last month, he'd done what Azar asked and come to know her. He'd introduced her to numerous courtiers, walked with her in the garden, had a second throne created for her, taught her about the Fae she lived among, and brought her presents every day.
Azar balked at accepting whatever she considered too expensive, but loved random things from around the palace. A button. A stick. A pretty seashell. She kept her ever expanding collection of prizes on display in her rooms. A competition had grown among the ravens over who brought Azar the best gift every day.
She carried treats in her pockets and doled them out so liberally it was a wonder there was food left in the kitchen. If he didn't put a stop to their game, all the ravens would be too fat to fly, but he couldn't bring himself to prevent something that brought Azar joy.
The only thing he hadn't been able to do for her was the thing she most wanted - reunite her with her father. She'd explained about his forgetfulness, and stopped asking, but Fechin knew Azar well enough by now to see the slight dimness always present in her eyes. While he was making her happier, she still wasn't happy in Inisfail.
Fechin had left Azar under guard several times while she slept and searched for her father. On his first trip, he'd found Azar's house abandoned. Since that discovery, he'd been a coward and not mentioned the empty home. As far as he could tell, the only thing missing was Azar's father, but the overturned furniture and torn up flooring made him think her father had not gone anywhere willingly.
Now the opening in the sky was gone. Azar said she was from Aribi, though, so eventually he'd have a place to start.
And while he'd left Azar under guard, Shisti hadn't killed anyone, or even tried to, as far as he knew. Fechin watched her closely, but never saw any indication she'd taken steps against Azar. He had seen a smile on Shisti's lips when by chance she saw Azar in the garden once, which frightened him more than if she'd attacked Azar with her ever present knife.
Vilkos had become aware of Azar, too. There was no way to keep her presence a secret. His brother had also been suspiciously well-behaved since his unexpected return.
Fechin almost wished one or both of them would act against him. This waiting game on top of all the usual drama among courtiers gave him headaches, and he'd not had a full night of sleep in over a month.
A wing thwacking Fechin's face brought his attention back to his current battle. He swooped low and flipped sideways, slipping through a narrow gap between Mischief's talons and Tricks' beak, to triumphantly drop a silver key into Azar's lap.
Azar still insisted on wearing trousers and tunics rather than dresses, but her beauty took his breath away each time he saw her. She laughed and held up his gift. "Did you steal this from someone who needs it?"
Ignoring the bit of cheese Azar teasingly held out as a reward, Fechin changed to his human body, straightened his clothes, and claimed her lips in a kiss.
He released her when she struggled against him. "What's wrong?"
"While you were distracting me, your miscreants emptied my pockets!" She pointed an accusing finger at Mischief and Tricks, who had almonds and bits of cheese spread all over the grass. "I'll have to go back to the kitchen."
"You shouldn't feed them so much, anyway. You're spoiling them."
"I like to." Azar held up the key. "Are you going to answer me? Did you steal this from someone who needs it?"
"The key is yours. You will have to find the lock it opens."
Her eyes lit up. "Your castle is huge! You have to give me a hint."
Your castle. Fechin held in a disappointed sigh. He hoped to hear here say our castle. Our bed. Our home. But she still hid a part of herself away from him.
"When you find it, you'll see it's exactly where it should be." Like you, Azar.
She scowled. "That's a terrible hint."
"Well, it's the only one you get."
Her eyes took on the gleam she got when she was up to something. She held up the key and waggled it. "Mischief, Tricks. You're clever ravens. I'll get something special from the kitchen if you show me — "
"No cheating!" Fechin cut off her words with another kiss as he transformed into his half-raven form. Sliding his arms around her, he flapped his wings and swept her into the air.
He'd forgotten what it felt like to be carefree and play. Had he been so playful before? The Morrigan loved him and he'd never had to be guarded around her, but they hadn't played games, other than war strategies.
When Vilkos arrived after his mother died, there had definitely been no boyhood games between them.
Fechin landed on her balcony, carried into her suite, and set her on her feet.
The new silver box stood out in the midst of all her raven gifts.
"I think I found what this key opens." She scowled at him. "I like to decide how my treasures are arranged."
His Azar had to have some raven blood in her heritage.
She inserted the key into the lock, twisted it, and opened the lid.
Inside, the wedding ring he'd commissioned for her lay atop a cushion.
Carved from ebony, two wings wrapped backward, while the bird's face formed the front of the ring. Emerald eyes sparkled, and the beak clutched a diamond.
"Will you marry me, my maité anam?"
She didn't answer him. Her eyes darted between the ring and his face. He'd done as she asked. He'd waited a month. His hope she'd accept him now turned icy the longer she didn't respond. Even giving him a reason why they shouldn't marry would be something he could argue against, but she said nothing.
"I see I need to persuade you." He stalked her across the suite as she held her hands out, like that would stop him. When he lunged, she darted away. But he caught the back of her shirt and let his talons out enough to shred the material.
Azar whirled and leveled a disapproving glare at him. "You ripped my shirt. Again!"
"I'll have another brought for you." He tore the rest of her clothing off of her, taking his frustrations out on material rather than her.
He placed a naked Azar in the middle of the bed and reached for the silk ties on each bedpost.
Fechin bound one delicate wrist, then the other, above her head, pulling the ties taut. This was something she'd become used to, even looked forward to, and when he dipped his fingers between her legs, her pussy was slick.
Stroking her abdomen, where the slight swelling assured him his child was growing, sent a rush of possessiveness through him. She would be his before his child was born.
He'd made other preparations. Just in case. He reached to one side of the mattress and brought up a third strip of silk that he tied around her knee, repeating his actions for her opposite knee.
Azar watched him, a slight anxiety in her eyes, but she didn't protest. He'd known she wouldn't. She trusted him, but he was about to push her. Punish her for not saying yes immediately.
Fechin kissed her soft lips. She tasted of the sweet Fae wine they'd had with lunch.
She moaned into his mouth and blood rushed to his cock. His erection pressed into her belly. The sounds she made — soft mewls as he nipped and kissed his way down her neck, urged him on.
Unable to stop himself, he thrust, parting her folds and penetrating deep. Her muscles gripped him as he stilled and took a minute to savor the feel of them joined together. Pulling back, he slid slowly into her again.
Her erect nipples begged for his mouth. He dipped down and took one between his lips, caressing and nibbling just hard enough to make her gasp over and over. She writhed beneath him, reaching for pleasure he wasn't going to allow her yet.
"Marry me. Azar."
He knelt between her legs, grinning down at her. Her eyes were glossy with lust as she looked up at him. He flicked his tongue over her nipple, making it harder, and reached up with his hand to work her other, feeling the bud pucker at his touch.
He rode her hard and fast, his plan for her making him more excited than usual. She was close. Her tight sheath clenching around him. But he was closer. He pulled out of her heated depths and covered her belly and breasts in ropes of his seed.
A sheen of sweat broke out across her brow and chest.
Azar groaned her frustration.
The edge of his need for her met for the moment, his body calmed and he set about persuading her to marry him in the language they each understood best.
Leaving her bound, he rose from the bed to retrieve the ring, a bowl of water and a towel.
He placed the ring on the pillow next to her head, cleaned her stomach and breasts, and set the bowl and towel aside. Between her thighs once more, he kissed his way up her thigh until his mouth fell upon her hot center. He slipped his hands under her ass to lift her, and paused.
"Marry me. Azar."
“Fechin!” She panted when he dipped his tongue inside her. She tasted of sweet need.
"That's not a yes. All I want to hear from you is yes."
He ran his tongue over her clit while sliding a finger into her. He drank in the sight of her body bared and spread before him with his finger deep inside her as he pushed her closer and closer to release.
Her head fell back, and her long hair spilled over the pillows. She ground against him and her breasts bounced enticingly with her movements.
He pulled away.
She screamed her frustration.
"Marry me, Azar."
The scent of her arousal was all around him, making him crazy. She was so beautiful, so warm and soft and wild. He moved his lips down the side of her throat, tasting the warm skin of her neck.
She tipped her head back, giving him access to the silky-soft skin under her ear, the dips and hollows above her collarbone.
He skimmed his hand down her leg. “You’re exquisite,” he murmured.
“You’re a tease,” she snapped.
He grinned at her. "Marry me, Azar."
She stared at him mutinously. A bead of sweat slid down her skin in a tantalizing trail between her breasts.
Fechin found her clit with his tongue, lapping at it, making her moan. He sucked it into his mouth, flicking his tongue over it. He nibbled gently, making Azar cry out. Her back arched as she almost orgasmed again. He caught her nipples in his fingers, gently twisting and pinching. Her body jerked toward him. Passion darkened her eyes. Her full lips parted as she panted.
He listened to the rhythm of her breathing, and when it quickened, then hitched, he knew she was close to orgasm again. He let go of her nipples and ran his hands down her sides, trailing his nails over her skin. He released her clit, licking it gently, holding back the pressure until her moaning became a frustrated demand for more.
"Marry me, Azar."
He slipped two fingers inside her, pressing on her g-spot as he stimulated her clit once more. He worked his fingers in time with his tongue, building the speed and the pressure. Azar writhed beneath him, bucking her hips and pressing herself against his face.
"Marry me, Azar."
She closed her eyes.
Unable to resist, he covered her body with his and thrust into her. Her tight wetness enveloped him, and he groaned against her breast as he buried himself inside her. For a second, he couldn’t move as everything in him became centered on her. He could spend a thousand years making love to her and still never tire of the perfect fit and the rightness of her in his arms.
Surely, she had to see that and give in.
He brought her to the edge again.
Azar arched and writhed under the assault of Fechin's tongue and fingers. He'd never tortured her so well or for so long before.
She lay in a sweaty mess. Caught thoroughly in Fechin's silk bindings and seduction. Every nerve thrummed with need. He rose over her and rubbed his erection against her sex.
Azar thrashed in her bonds, torn between pride and need — as much hers as his. She didn't want to give in, but it was clear Fechin had no intention of stopping his game, and she was not nearly as skillful a player as him.
She craved his touches and smiles, and wanted to marry him. But some part of her still resented how she'd ended up here, and the lack of choice ever since.
Her hips jerked, trying to take him further inside. She was right on the edge of bliss when he pulled out. As he sat back on his knees, she raised her hips, seeking his touch. His hand slid up her inner thigh before going straight to where she ached most.
Still, he didn't give her what she needed.
"Marry me. Azar."
She refused to answer. The only way to deny him anything, was to offer him nothing. In all the time she'd been at his castle, she'd yet to win an argument or debate with him.
He moved again, giving her long deep strokes.
She moaned at the blissful friction of his body rubbing against hers.
What would it hurt to say yes? To give him what he wanted? In this, anyway. There would have to be a reckoning for his behavior today, but her body and mind were too fractured to fight this war she couldn't win. She felt only contradictions.
Pleasure that hurt.
Love and hate.
Need and lack.
Desire and regret.
She wanted to weep.
"Yes! Yes, I will marry you." Anything to get this over with.
Her skin felt like it was burning, and he was the only one who could soothe her. His hands dug into her hips for a moment, then she yelped when his fingers found the small nub at the core of her, rubbing it with a touch that was at once harsh and gentle. It was too much.
Azar was only sensation stretched too thin. A deep tug of desire grew, but she resisted. She no longer wanted actual pleasure from this. His actions were about power over her. However, Fechin was not a man who would abide her resistance.
He redoubled his efforts. Between his body slamming into her and his fingers adeptly manipulating her, Azar had to give up. When she finally reached that peak again, Fechin finally let her go over. The climax, so long denied, felt like lightning from head to toe, and she shook with the force of her release.
From the tips of her toes to the tingling in her scalp, every part of her burned with the raw passion coursing through her. She waited for the wave to crest, but they pounded through her one after another.
His movements turned erratic and he thrust in one last time, shuddering as he grunted in pleasure.
Fechin slipped the raven ring on her finger, and immediately released her wrists and knees, massaging her arms and legs. Rolling onto his back, he gathered her close, stroking her hair as he murmured to her.
"We'll be married this afternoon."
"So soon?" She should have known he wouldn't waste any time.
"Now that you've agreed, there's no reason to wait."
Her father wasn't here. That was reason enough to put off the ceremony, wasn't it?
He pulled her closer, wrapped her in his arms and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "This will be a short, informal ceremony. We'll have a more elaborate wedding after your father arrives. Guests will want to come from all over Inisfail to attend, but I don't want to wait."
Azar examined her palm and wrist. Shisti had healed the wounds perfectly, as she always did, and promised she was making progress on finding a way past the wards.
It was taking so long, and Fechin was wearing down Azar's resistance. She still longed to find her father, but now there would always be a part of her that belonged to Fechin. Must she always be torn between places and people?
A small, annoying part of her whispered she should tell Fechin about the plan to escape the wards, now that she'd agreed to marry him. Shouldn't there be honesty between a husband and wife? Somehow, it felt like a coerced wife was entitled to keep a plan for freedom to herself. She'd not forget her wrists were bound when he put the ring on her finger.
But he'd worked so hard over the last month, and they were happy. Well, Fechin was happier than she was, but she was learning to live a life here. At least, she was until today. Much of the goodwill and trust Fechin had built up had vanished this afternoon.
If she told him she'd been plotting to leave him with Shisti's help this whole time, while he'd done nothing but try to please her, she would destroy any chance of their new-found happiness.
He'd lock her away in the tower again. And he might punish Shisti for trying to help.
No. She had to keep that one secret from him. When Shisti's magic did work, Azar could decide whether to use it or not. Maybe by then, Fechin would understand. He'd promised over and over he would bring her father to court, and she wanted to believe in him.
But what if he couldn't? It was better to keep that option available for herself. If she needed to leave, it would be because he hadn't kept his word, and if she never left, he didn't need to know she could have.
After several days to prepare for his journey, and waiting out unfavorable winds from a massive storm, Bres had finally set sail, but progress was slow — if getting only as far as out of view of the island could be considered progress at all.
"Damn you, you stubborn ship." Bres ducked the swinging boom aimed at his head. It had only taken one smack from the wooden beam to alert him to that trick. He also had to maintain awareness of uncoiling ropes that turned into snares, loose decking that tripped him, and changes of direction that sent him staggering.
Anyone would think a Fomorian wasn't welcome aboard one of Merlin's ships. He adjusted the tiller to head north. The ship veered east, like it had been waiting for a chance to be contrary.
"No wonder ships are considered female."
All the sails went rigid and the ship came to a stop.
"Sorry," he mumbled insincerely, wrestling with the tiller again. The last thing he needed was to end up in the Queen of Winter's court.
Bres yanked on the tiller again. It jumped out of his hands and the ship turned east. "If you're taking me to Beria, no thank you." He had no desire to become one of her toys. She was as bad as Ymir.
He'd spent the days trapped ashore studying his maps. There were several routes he could take, all of them with different risks. Aribi lay to the east, on the far side of Africa.
The shortest distance would be to sail across the Mediterranean Sea. That route would carry him perilously close to several places not especially friendly to Fomorians — mainly the Hellas and Aegyptus courts. It was unlikely he could pass the whirlpools, sirens, or the lighthouse that guarded the ocean.
His magic had mostly recovered over the last few years, but if he had to rely on it constantly, he could find himself drained, and helpless, at exactly the wrong time.
By far the safest route was to head south and circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa, not setting foot ashore at all, and maintaining his distance from all the courts. There were a few dangers, but if he skirted Atlantis, it should be simple enough to avoid the sea monsters any coastal courts could send after him. The Fomorians hadn't raided the distant courts enough to have created vendettas there.
It would also take the longest amount of time, and that was a luxury he didn't have. An inner clock had begun ticking the moment he first thought about leaving Morgan and Meghan behind. He wanted to be gone as short a time as possible, and live through the experience. He had children to return to. Or, he would.
Two routes led north. The shorter one threaded through the southern end of Ymir's territory, a hundred islands, and several courts before ending at Rus. Then the journey would be overland to the south.
His best bet was to head farther north, giving Ymir's Court a wide buffer to the west. That meant the risk of sailing into ice up north, having to travel near Louhi's domain, and possibly running into Koschei of the Rus Court.
Bres would rather face that crazy man than Ymir. Koschei was insane, but an ally of sorts, or at least not an outright enemy.
Of course, everything depended on getting the ship to do what he wanted in the first place. It hadn't come with instructions when he stole it.
"All right, Ship, we need to get to..." A crazy idea took hold. Could it be so easy? "Do you happen to know where any of the Inisfail treasures are?"
The ship waited, creaking as waves buffeted the hull.
Maybe it needed more specifics. "The spear, the stone, or the cauldron. Can you take me to the nearest one of them?" That would make his journey so much shorter, provided the relics hadn't gone far.
The ship did nothing.
"So, that's a no, huh?"
Great. He'd barely sailed out of sight of his island and he was already talking to himself.
With no warning, the ship took off, sending Bres sprawling as it sped east. Again. He picked himself up from the deck. "That's going to leave a mark."
He really didn't want to see the Queen of Winter. Although, it was possible she had one of the relics he'd asked about. It wouldn't surprise him if she'd taken a relic when she'd been banished from Inisfail.
When the coast came into view, the boat veered south — Inisfail on the right, Alba on the left.
"Oh. Trying to go home, are you?" Wherever the ship was headed, it was going there in a hurry. The sails billowed and the landscape on the port side blurred too fast for him to spot landmarks. He moved to the front of the ship and held onto the railing with a death grip. If he wasn't in charge of where he was going, at least he could see what was coming for him.
Bres finally got his bearings when the end of the island came into view and the ship curved left. Another left sent the ship up a narrow river that ran inland, mostly north.
The vessel came to an abrupt halt that nearly sent Bres flying over the prow, despite his death grip. He made sure the anchor medallion remained tucked safely in his pocket. The ship could only move if the anchor was aboard, so at least it couldn't abandon him.
"Where have you brought me? Which relic is here?" Of course, there was no answer.
Bres leapt over the rail, boots splashing into ankle deep water, and waded ashore. On land, a pull northward urged him to continue in that direction.
He'd been to this part of the world before. A bit more than ten miles away, a vast magic reservoir called to all Other Worlders. Some legends said Merlin had constructed the colossal stone edifice in Inisfail and moved it here. Others said the stones had been there far longer than Merlin had been alive.
Either way, the standing stones were a focus for magic. It was a perfect hiding place for relics. The magic of the stones would overwhelm smaller energies, thus hiding the presence of anything not as powerful.
If he found one of the treasures so close to home, he could be back on the island tonight. Bres hurried toward Stonehenge, but kept a wary eye out. There was always someone, or something, lurking around places of power.
Ghostly shadows moved over the grassy plain and around the stones where humans wandered in and out of the thinner areas separating their world from his. In such basins of power, magic often leaked between places.
The human version of Stonehenge had been allowed to fall into ruin, but the monument he stood before was intact. Vertical columns thirteen feet high, topped by horizontal stones, formed an intact circle around an inner ring of smaller upright bluestones, that in turn stood around two sets of even smaller vertical stones, each capped by a horizontal lintel.
Summer solstice brought the height of power, but that was half a year away. Even so, magic flowed around Bres, seeping into him. He froze, worried his power hadn't been sufficiently restored. Places like this were dangerous for anyone as broken as he'd been. Magic didn't like being fragmented. More than one person had come here hoping to mend themselves, and been immolated instead.
Bres stood alone, except for a tawny cat so gigantic he lay sprawled across two of the warm horizontal stones in the sun. The creature didn't raise his head or open his eyes, but his long tail flicked.
Power radiated from the cat, although it was hard to tell how much was innate to the creature and what came from the stones.
Why had the ship brought him here? A spear or cauldron would stand out, but an extra stone wouldn't necessarily be out of place. With a wary eye on the sun-bathing beast, Bres walked around the largest ring.
The Stone of Destiny was only three feet high and rounded. He searched each ring for anything that felt off or out of place, then expanded the pattern to outside the monument.
The grassy plain wasn't completely flat. Small hills and dips made it more rolling than level. He climbed one hillock and reeled back a step before he fell into a pit. Pieces of rock littered the bottom. Some were the size of pebbles, but others were bigger — up to a few feet long.
The Stone of Destiny could be here. He jumped into the hole and sorted through the chunks of rock.
"What are you doing?" a voice screeched.
Skin, hair, and eyes a greyish-blue that matched the hues of the grey sarsen and bluestones she fed on, she stood about two feet tall. Hands on the hips of her low-cut, full-skirted ball gown, she stared at him, unafraid even though he could squash her under his boot.
Maybe he should be the nervous one. Who knew how long she'd been absorbing the magic here? It was always a good rule not to piss off fairies anyway.
"I wanted to see if there was anything worth my time here." He gave a deprecating look around. "I don't think so."
She stomped one small, bare foot. "I have all the best rocks!"
Bres shook his head. "I happen to know about the best rock, and it's not here."
"These aren't all of my rocks you know. I have more." But she didn't sound a hundred percent sure. Good. She was curious. Fairies were greedy creatures. If she didn't have the best rock, she wanted it. "What does the best one look like?"
"It's about three feet high, round, carved from white stone, and full of engravings."
She flashed him a triumphant grin. "We have that rock!"
We. He wanted to sigh and cheer at the same time. The Stone of Destiny was here, but there were more fairies.
"I don't believe you."
The fairy flapped her wings and rose into the air. She whistled a series of notes, and received two whistles in return.
With a smug grin, she flew higher. "The best one is in another barrow. I'll show you."
He jumped out of the pit and followed her to another hill, where two more fairies, identical to the first, awaited at the bottom of another hole.
The Stone of Destiny lay on its side. He'd recognize it anywhere. Now he just had to figure out how to get it away from the fairies. "Huh." Bres shrugged. "You do have it." He turned his back on it, and them, to start walking back toward the stone circle.
"Where are you going?"
The only thing more attractive than magic to feed on was a possible deal. "I just wanted to see it."
The three fairies buzzed around in agitation. "Don't you want it? It's the best one!"
He stopped and turned back. "Well, if you don't want it, I could take it away. As a favor to you."
They gasped in unison. "A favor! To us!" They giggled. "We're not stupid."
Unfortunately, that was true.
The first fairy, at least he thought it was the first fairy. Hovered in front of his nose. "What will you give us for the stone?"
Bres knew better than to answer an open-ended question like that one. "What do you want?"
She landed, grew in size to match his, and simpered forward as she ran her hands over her body. "It's ever so lonely here by ourselves."
"We don't have any men," the second fairy whispered into his ear.
The third fairy ran her hand up his thigh. "Won't you stay?"
"We'll trade you the stone for a kiss."
"The men have all gone away."
What choice did he have? "One night for the stone."
They gave him feral grins with sharp teeth that made certain parts of his anatomy cringe.
"Deal." The fairies chorused and closed in around him. They clasped his hands and pushed on his chest, forcing him backward until he tumbled into the barrow. They were on him in a flash. Yanking at his boots and clothes.
"It won't be bad."
"You'll like us."
"We can be whoever you want."
A woman with orange-gold eyes and long black hair gave him a gentle smile as she reached for him.
Bres shook his head and jerked away from her. She wasn't the one he loved. He didn't even know the woman.
Her visage morphed and Morgan was there. Her green eyes sparkled — alight with happiness he hadn't seen since before he'd claimed her as tribute. Naked, she stepped forward, intertwined their fingers, and pulled him into her bedroom.
"I want you. Do you want me?"
He stared at her lush pink lips. Some part of him knew this wasn't real. It wasn't Morgan, but it's how he wanted her to be with him. Just this once, he could have her willing.
Bres lowered his mouth, kissing down her neck, along her collarbone to her breasts. Morgan moaned as he flicked his tongue across one nipple until she writhed beneath him.
"I need more. I need you," she murmured.
He kissed and nuzzled her skin, tongue dipping into her navel. She dug her hands into his hair as his mouth travelled down her body. Her sounds of pleasure were interspersed with whispered words, telling him how much she wanted him.
"I'm so wet for you." Her voice was throaty and breathless as he buried his head between her legs, her words exciting him. She got even wetter as he licked along her folds, stroking her with two fingers before sliding them inside her. Her body arched towards him and she spread her legs wider.
Bres latched onto her clit, sucking and licking while he pumped his fingers mercilessly inside her. She clutched at his head, whimpering helplessly as she came, her body bowing.
Keeping up the relentless onslaught, he brought her to another shuddering climax and she cried out with a raw, primitive sound. Bres wrapped his hands around her thighs and pressed her open even wider. She came a third time.
He wanted to punish her for all the times she'd denied him. Make her feel all the pleasure she'd cost both of them when she'd rejected him over and over.
Her words turned from praise to pleading as he forced orgasm after orgasm from her, until she lost all her words.
Eyes burning into hers, he bent to kiss her as he moved above her. Morgan lay beneath him, body flushed, eyes feverish. In one swift movement he grabbed her hands and put them over her head as he drove his cock into her.
She made a half grunting, half moaning sound as the weight of his body pinned her down, his hand holding hers immobile.
"Do you see?" He grunted as he drove his dick and anger into her. "You've wasted years when we could have been happy!"
He pulled out and drove into her again. Concentrating on each and every thrust, he focused even harder on not coming. Her greedy sheath clenched his shaft and he felt his balls pulling up. Morgan threw her head back. She drew her knees higher, taking him deeper into her pussy, rocking against him, matching him thrust for thrust.
Bres grit his teeth, fighting against the inevitable. He slid his hand between their bodies and circled her clit. She came apart just as he was losing control. Right now, just like this, was how it was meant to be between them, but he wasn’t sure how they were going to make this work. Closing his eyes, he lost himself in her.
The Morgan under him vanished, and he turned onto his side. Small, soft hands pushed him onto his back. A warm, wet mouth sealed over his cock. He closed his eyes as a second mouth sucked on his throat, and a third bit his nipple. Morgan was everywhere. He squeezed a breast. Slid a hand up a thigh. Kissed an eager mouth.
A tongue licked the sensitive underside of his tip. He groaned. As he was about to come, the mouth left his cock, replaced by a tight, welcoming pussy.
Morgan's shapely body appeared over him. He raked his eyes over her body, stroked her thighs and over her ass, pulling her tighter onto him. Cupping her breasts, he teased her nipples as he pushed deeper into her.
She braced her palms on his chest and moved up and down on him as he held her waist and thrust to meet her. He groaned as she wiggled, grinding her hips into his, her movements becoming faster and urgent. His breathing was ragged as he put his hands on her shoulders, bearing down so he could take her harder. His cock twitched. A hot flash shot down his spine into his balls as they grew tight. With a ragged moan, his whole body shuddered as he came inside her and she vanished.
On her hands and knees, Morgan arched her back and offered him a coy smile over her shoulder. He rolled to his knees, cock hardening for her again. Bres seized her hips and dragged her backward. Impaling her, he rutted against her until her arms gave out. He held her hips higher, the wet sound of her pussy taking him making him all the harder.
He raised one hand and brought it down on her ass. She screamed and bucked, her tight inner muscles clenching around him at the impact. A second smack. She tightened around his cock again, but tried to scramble away. Bres shifted his legs from inside her thighs, to outside, trapping her legs closed between his, dick still deep inside her.
Bres brought his hand down a third time, harder than before. The world wavered around him. The woman in front of him lost her pale skin and red hair. Grey-blue skin and tangled hair. The fairies.
It had never been Morgan at all.
Caught up in anger and passion, he rained blows on the fairy's ass until her skin glowed red and felt hot beneath his fingers. Panting his exertion and excitement, he slid a hand to her front and found her clit. He stroked her until she came with a strangled cry, and he emptied his cock into her.
Panting, he pushed the fairy away, but Morgan returned. She lay on her back and slid a hand down her body, moaning as she played with her clit.
He shoved her hand aside, draped her legs over his shoulders, and buried himself inside her.
Bres blinked awake in bright sunlight, and wished he hadn't. Every muscle ached, including his cock, and he felt utterly drained, despite the magic in the reservoir attempting to level him out.
His skin itched, but his arms were too heavy to lift. He ran his eyes down his body, covered in bites and scratches. The fucking fairies had given as good as they'd received. He was lucky things hadn't been worse.
He lay on his back at the bottom of a ditch. Fortunately, it wouldn't be hard to climb out. When he could move.
Aaaaany minute now.
A man's face, surrounded by a tawny mane of hair and beard, peered over the edge of the hole. Golden-green eyes with elliptical pupils studied him. "You lived."
"Debatable." Bres summoned his strength.
It ignored him.
The man smiled — a grin that showed off especially sharp fangs.
That hair. Those eyes and fangs. The cat.
"Was that rock worth it?"
The Stone of Destiny!
Bres turned his head to one side. Nothing. Concentrating hard, he turned his head the other way. There. The three-foot stone stood propped against the dirt wall, his clothes neatly folded in front of his prize.
At least it hadn't been for nothing.
Bres rolled to one side, pushed himself to sitting, and dragged his pants up his legs. The anchor was still in his pocket. He breathed out a gust of relief. "I hope it was worth it." He pulled his tunic over his head and laced his boots onto his feet.
He stretched a hand toward the stone, but halted before he made contact. What if the stone remained silent? He didn't want an audience in case he failed. Bres pulled his sleeves over his hands and picked up the stone. Reaching over his head, he laid it on the grass and levered himself out of the pit.
Time to get out of here before the fairies came back. Tucking the stone under one arm, he set off for the river, and his ship.
"I'm Pemangsa." The enormous man moved with a cat-like grace, muscles rolling smoothly under his tawny skin. He was even taller than Bres. It was easy to imagine a long tail swishing behind him. "Who're you?"
"What's so important about that rock you risked your life for it?"
Bres eyed Pemangsa, unsure if he could fight the man off if he wanted the stone.
"You ask a lot of questions."
Pemangsa's eyes glowed more green than gold. "Cat." He held one hand palm up. "Curiosity." The other palm came up, level with the first, and he shrugged. "I don't want your rock, just to know what it does."
Bres smiled at that. "It roars for rightful kings."
An ear flicked. "You need a rock to tell you this?"
Only a feline could inject that level of disdain into his words. Bres supposed it was because all cats, Other World or from the human world, already thought they were kings and queens.
"It never hurts to have confirmation."
"For you, or everyone else?"
"Both, I think."
"What are you the king of?"
"You're asking a lot of questions again."
"You're touching the stone and it remains silent. Perhaps the fairies broke it." He placed a huge hand on the stone. "I am the King of Cats."
A roar thundered through the air.
Pemangsa flashed his fangs. "Seems to be working."
Bres glanced down. His sleeve had slipped, and there was nothing between the stone and his skin. But he hadn't proclaimed himself king of anything. Hadn't dared even think of it.
He glared at the cat. "Don't you have some sun to lay in?"
"Eh. Not much sun here in winter. Where are you going?"
"I'm sailing north. Nothing but water, darkness, and ice." No self- respecting cat would like that.
Dissuading a cat from what he wanted to do would take more energy than Bres could muster at the moment. His skin itched, and his body ached. He needed a shower, and still had nine miles to walk.
It couldn't hurt to have the King of Cats as an ally. Fomorians could always use another friend.
And when it came time to fight, cats loved to hunt birds.
Leaving Pemangsa on the main deck, Bres headed down two steep staircases to the lowest level. Rows of drawers lined the wall, all neatly strapped closed. He opened a long, narrow drawer in the bottom row and deposited the Stone of Destiny inside, nestled amoung some clothing he stored there.
Unable to resist, he placed his palm on the rock and whispered, "I am the King of Inisfail."
His heart sank. He would be the king Inisfail needed this time. But he couldn't return to Inisfail in triumph if the stone didn't roar for him. Maybe he had to wait until his children were born until he was the rightful king. Maybe he had to boldly make a proclamation like Pemangsa had. But his confidence was shaken.
In the meantime, he'd have to keep the Stone of Destiny somewhere no one could use it against him. The hold of his ship would work.
He closed the drawer and buckled the strap to keep it in place. There was nothing for it. The journey to Aribi was back on.
Up top, Bres shook his head at the sight of Pemangsa, now in his huge cat form again. He took up half the deck on one side of the ship.
He ran his fingers over the anchor in his pocket. "North, ship."
To his surprise, the ship smoothly set sail.
Ymir flowed into Ginnungagap, the abyss of creation. Fields of ice, vortexes of flame, and streams of etir always rejuvenated him. He formed a human body, albeit a hundred feet tall, and relaxed onto a throne of etir. It was probably all in his mind, but being trapped in human sized bodies felt cramped after a while. He liked stretching into his full size as he gathered information from his spies.
Odin had his ravens and wolves. Ymir had the squirrel in Yggdrasil. No one took the creature seriously, making him an excellent spy. He scampered from branch to branch, roots to treetop, giving Ymir glimpses of other worlds.
A pregnant Valkyrie walked through Valhalla. His work with the warrior women had resulted in many pregnancies. The child he needed would be born on schedule. Ymir didn't linger there for long. Hugin and Munin could sense etir.
The squirrel darted up the trunk to Vanaheim, where Odin's soldiers fought against the Vanir.
The dwarves of Myrkheim created weapons and relics. Ymir checked on that realm frequently to see what they were inventing.
Muspelheim always bore watching. The Norns called the fire giants World Wreckers, and had told Odin one of them would begin Ragnarok.
Leaving the squirrel, Ymir traveled farther. Distance made connections more tenuous. A Draugr blinked and Ymir saw the sea. Normally, the undead warriors stayed on land to guard their treasures and barrows, but their near immortality, abilities to change sizes and shapes, control the weather, and turn to fog made them too valuable to limit to a few square feet.
Moving their possessions onto a ship made them portable, and since they were half dead, there was plenty of room for etir.
Ymir enjoyed his glimpses of the sea. He turned the Draugr's head up. Scant grey clouds smudged the horizon to horizon blue sky. It was rare to have such clear weather this time of year. A salt-tinged breeze lifted a few hairs escaping his heavy braid.
Bringing the Draugr's eyes back down, he studied the waves as the ship pushed through the swells. The ship appeared to be the only thing in the world. No land in sight. Not even a bird.
Where was the ship heading?
Ymir walked the Draugr over the deck. So, they weren't the only ones in the world. The Draugr brought a spyglass to his eye and examined the other ship. Dragons. Gold. A vague memory stirred. Where had he seen ships like this before?
A sea battle. Not his battle, but one he had witnessd… between the Fomorians and… King Arthur's navy. This was one of Merlin's enchanted ships.
The spyglass focused on the deck of the ship. No crew. Well, an enormous cat sprawled across the deck, but he didn't seem concerned with steering the ship.
Adrift? The vessel plowed through the waves heading north, though, like it had a destination rather than floating at the mercy of currents and tides.
Take the ship? The idea appealed to the Draugr. They were always happy to add to their treasures. As he opened his mouth to give the orders, a solitary figure climbed from below deck and came into full view on the other ship.
Male. Clad in leather pants and boots. Long black hair blew back from the man's face. The glowing skin said some sort of Fae. There were few Fae who went to sea aboard ships. Merrow and Selkies had no use for ships.
Ymir compared the man's relative size with things aboard the ship. Tall.
Seagoing Fae using ships and giant-sized?
The spyglass focused closer in on the man. Not scarred. Or at least none visible scars at this distance. A too pretty face. That had to be Bres.
Ymir compelled the Draugr to change into a seal and slipped over the side of the ship into the ocean. He knifed through the sea to Merlin's vessel and pressed his ear to the hull.
Only two heartbeats on the entire ship.
Where could Bres be going? There was nothing to the north except ice, eventually. If he turned east, that troublesome witch Louhi ruled in Pohjola, and beyond her land was Rus.
None of that concerned Ymir. The interesting thing here was that Bres sailed with only a cat for companionship. The Draugr dove away from Merlin's ship and swam toward his.
While one of Merlin's enchanted ships would be a prize, the greater prize was south. Prizes, actually. If Bres was here, he wasn't protecting them. Something was important enough to bring Bres out of his island refuge.
That meant the Morrigan's granddaughters were unprotected, and free for the taking.
Shisti sat next to Fechin’s whore. Could anyone really be so guileless and naïve, or was this an act? "I was walking through the gardens and saw you looking so sad that I had to stop. This castle can be so dreary. Sometimes I come to the gardens because a bit of color can be just the thing to cheer up the day."
"I'm afraid I can’t appreciate the beauty of any cage," Azar muttered.
“A cage?” Shisti could relate to the sentiment. This place was a cage to her, too.
“I probably shouldn’t talk about it.” Azar ducked her head.
"Do you really want to leave?"
Azar nodded, looked around, and leaned closer. "Do you know how I can leave this place? I need to get home."
"Where is your home?"
"In Aribi. We have a house in an oasis."
There was no desert oasis in Inisfail Fae territory, as far as she knew, and the only Aribi she’d heard of was far from Inisfail. How had Fechin gone there and returned so quickly? She’d been out of contact for a few days, but not nearly long enough for a trip across continents and oceans and back.
She sent her magic out, pushing against the wards that surrounded Inisfail. Before, there had always been a solid push back. A sort of bounce that repelled her. Now she could press right up against it, and the texture wasn’t smooth. There were cracks. Had Fechin found a big enough fracture to leave and return?
“It’s just that my father isn’t well.,” Azar was babbling. “He needs me.”
It shouldn’t matter why Azar wanted to leave, just that she did. But the way she spoke about her father reminded Shisti of her mother. "If you really want to go, I can help you."
"You can? We just met, and you would do that for me?"
Trusting. This woman was too trusting. She’d be killed in no time.
The delicious irony of the woman Fechin loved not wanting to be with him after all the arrogant bastard had made Shisti endure fed an icy sensation in her heart. "Of course. No woman should have to be stuck with a brute she doesn't want."
That much was true. Shisti longed for her mother's court, where the men were little more than food to be played with. Except for one, who’d never seen her as something to breed or use. One who’d died because he’d dared to love her.
Azar threw herself into Shisti's arms. "It would be different if he'd spoken to me first, but he just… he just took me. And now he says I have to stay."
Taken by surprise, Shisti froze as Azar hugged her, then remembered she was playing a part and patted Azar's back. "Fechin thinks of himself as king entitled to everything. He doesn't consider what anyone else wants. Of course I'll help you regain your freedom."
Pulling back, Azar sighed. "I've tried the doors and windows. There's some sort of block on them that I can't get through."
"Those are wards created by blood magic. They control who can come and go. If you give me some of your blood, I can adjust the magic so you can get through them."
"You can do that? Does Fechin know?"
"No." Shisti smiled at the girl. "I assure you, Fechin has no idea of what I'm capable of."
But he would.
"All right. I don't want to get you in trouble."
"It's my pleasure and no trouble at all." Shisti drew her ritual knife from a fold in her dress. "All I need is some of your blood. The magic is old and powerful, so it may take a few attempts."
Azar held out her palm. "I understand. Do it." She winced as the sharp blade cut into her palm.
Shisti guided Azar's blood into a few vials, whispering a healing spell when she had enough.
Holding up her hand, Azar stared at her unblemished skin."That's amazing."
Although Shisti hadn't done it to be nice, she let Azar hold that belief. It wasn't benevolence, just something to make sure Fechin didn't know Shisti had the blood of his woman.
"I'll get to work on a way out for you immediately. The wards can be complicated, so play along for now. Then, when Fechin least expects it, you'll be free. I promise."
"Thank you, Shisti." Azar threw her arms around Shisti's neck again. "You're my only friend here. I'm so glad we met tonight."
“I am glad to have met you, too.”
Leaving Azar in the garden, Shisti made her way toward her rooms. Waving a hand at her door, she unlocked it and pushed it open.
The moment she'd been waiting for.
She brought a drop of Azar's blood to her tongue. She hadn't felt magic on the girl, but her blood burned with the taste of it. And life. So much life.
Fechin had already bred Azar, and she carried twins.
Shisti smiled, a sense of genuine happiness making her feel light. For the first time since she'd been sent to this heap of stone, joy bloomed in her heart. With the blood of Azar and the babes who carried Fechin’s blood as well, she could curse not only Azar, but Fechin and all his bloodline forever.
Moon-Clad once more, Shisti knelt in front of the fire.
She emptied one vial of Azar's blood into her scrying bowl. Better to save the rest. With a quick slash of her wrist, she added her blood to Azar's and chanted the words to access her magic.
Infusing her will into her words and the blood mixture, Shisti conjured her curse.
"With my blood, I curse yours to know only short lives filled with pain. Joy will turn bitter, and to know love means death."
The bowl heated as the blood bubbled and absorbed the magic. Dark red smoke rose into the air and dissipated with a pop.
Shisti swayed on her knees as the magic necessary to enact her curse drained from her, leaving her at an unexpected, dangerously low level. Gasping, she braced herself on her hands and knees, panting through the dizziness making her vision swim.
She needed to replenish her energy. Fortunately, she knew where to get almost unlimited sex magic, even if it was with Vilkos. Leaving herself vulnerable was not an option.
Warmth spread through her, starting in her womb. The magic, given freely, rejuvenated Shisti’s flagging levels, and for the second time tonight, she felt happiness.
“Thank you, my daughter.” Shisti pressed a hand to her abdomen and sent power back to the tiny girl growing inside her. Sharing this way, her daughter would be born with innate knowledge of magic and have another advantage. If they were going to escape all the courts, monsters, and servitude to live in freedom, they both needed every chance available.
Shared magic grew exponentially, and as she received and returned the energy, her power grew to levels she’d not experienced since she came to the Raven Court.
With her magic at an all-time high, she felt invincible. She was willing to take her revenge on Fechin over time, but Vilkos needed to learn a lesson immediately.
Vilkos lounged on the Wulven throne in his audience hall. He kept the place dim — he and the men of the Wild Hunt were capable of seeing clearly in the near darkness, and bright light hurt eyes that preferred the moon.
Plus, the near darkness kept out all except the most determined of petitioners. Those who sought help from the Seelie Court went to Fechin. Vilkos listened to those of the Unseelie Court.
Fortunately, most were too cowardly or intelligent to bother him with anything but the most urgent or important pleas.
The hall wasn’t as ostentatious as the one Fechin used. Only fifty people fit comfortably with its walls, but that only helped keep people away — the ones who thought fancy meant power.
In the center of the room, the entire ceiling opened to the night sky, allowing moonbeams to illuminate the tree he’d brought from the Fae forest where his mother and her sisters once ran. Its roots had been soaked in their blood when the Morrigan’s son slaughtered them. It was all he had left of her.
Over the decades, the tree had flourished under his care. Its trunk spanned twenty feet, the canopy twice that, and its roots had taken over, running across the floor. Branches extended to the walls and over them, giving the entire hall the sense of being within the tree.
His throne, a high-backed wooden chair grown out of the live wood, sat atop a large root, a square wooden table next to it. Other chairs and small round tables perched on lower roots. Years ago they had long banquet tables, but the tree didn’t dead wood in its presence.
And their entertainments required more freedom of movement.
Girls screamed and ran around the room. As usual, a door stood open. If the girls made it through the door, they were free. Or so they believed. Men of the Wild Hunt wouldn't stop their pursuit at a door. Sometimes a long chase proved more satisfying when the prey was finally caught.
Vilkos felt no desire to chase any of the screaming girls. His wolf only stirred for one woman now.
As a child, he'd seen his mother murdered, and his father's descent into madness. He'd vowed to never take a mate. To never put himself in that position. Now here he was, with Shisti, of all people, as a mate. Emotions he'd never wanted to feel warred within him.
He missed his mother and the way she'd sing and dance under the moon with him. The fierce ache still hurt even after all the years since her death. She was loving, kind, gentle, and too trusting, and that’s what got her murdered by the Morrigan's son. She and her two sisters, slaughtered like they were no more than animals.
The loss of her had caused his father to go mad, and Vilkos had effectively become an orphan. Nicusor took over the Wild Hunt. Members had always been ruthless, and more animal than man. Since his mother's murder, The Wild Hunt's sole purpose had become revenge.
Vilkos had become the Morrigan's adopted son, but more hostage to keep his father in check. Not that Nicusor cared about his son. He and the Wild Hunt had returned the slaughter — of the Morrigan's family, only two daughters, Morgan and Meghan, remained alive. Fechin lived since the Morrigan had saved Vilkos, a son for a son, but if the women ever surfaced again, they'd be killed on sight.
Ever since he'd been brought here as a boy and told Fechin was his brother, there had been a competition between them. They used to like one another, but the rivalry had long since become deadly.
A particularly high-pitched scream brought his attention back to the spectacle in front of him.
One by one, the girls were captured, each man dragging his screaming captives to a table. Some were forced to their knees, others bent over a table. Clothing ripped. There were a few guests tonight. A sluagh. A puca. A fuath.
And a satyr. Interesting. They were a proud species, not given to asking for help.
"Thigran, what can the Unseelie Court do for the satyrs?"
The satyr forced the girl he'd caught onto his goat-legged lap. "We want the Wild The Hunt to destroy the centaurs."
Centaurs. The beasts thought they were better than everyone else in the forest, and wouldn't hesitate to loose their bows at anyone they considered a threat. Nevermind they weren't even Inisfail Fae. They were refugees. Who were they to decide what was just and who deserved punishment?
"What's the problem with the centaurs?"
"They're killing us. What else?"
Vilkos wanted to kill the satyr in front of him. Perhaps the centaurs were on to something.
"They've already been to see Fechin."
That got Vilkos' attention. He did his best to avoid the whiners and complainers of the court. "And what did my dear brother say?"
"He sent that animal.” Thigran tightened his fist in his girl’s hair until she whimpered. “The Dullahan. He’s scattering us. We have no protection against him."
Vilkos raised an eyebrow. No one had protection against The Dullahan. He was a last resort. Why had Fechin sent him already?
“I’ll send a message to my father.” If nothing else, the Wild Hunt might enjoy a bit of sport against the headless hunter.
The sluagh, a skeletal, grey-skinned man with dark, leathery wings, glanced up from his terrified captive. “Your father will want to know why you’ve returned to the Raven Court before he grants any favors.”
Shisti entered the hall. Her presence filled the room, causing everyone to go silent and pause.
He'd had her many times while he was in rut. She'd not uttered a word of complaint, but she accepted him rather than participating. Seeing her come to him, his wolf sat up to attention. She moved gracefully, her long dress flowing around her. Her skin glowed in the moonlight.
Vilkos extended a hand as she sauntered toward him. "You can tell my father I'll be king in six months. The Unseelie will rule the Raven Court. I'll have an heir."
The Wild Hunt stared at Shisti, and the sluagh barked out a laugh. “You stole your brother’s woman?”
More like Fechin had stolen Shisti from him, and Vilkos had reclaimed what was his. "Don’t believe me? Smell her."
If he hadn't been watching Shisti so closely, he would’ve missed the slight tightening around her eyes. She gave him next to nothing. Her face remained a mask, even when her body bent to his will. He didn't care if she was happy as long as she bowed to his dominance, but she never looked resentful or angry. Nothing to let him enjoy his power over her.
If he couldn't have happiness, he'd settle for a fight, but she didn't give him that either. He wanted her fire, to either match his, or as something to smother.
She made no verbal protest, but that slight narrowing of her eyes may as well have been a shout. He had a moment to savor getting a reaction before the mask was in place and she smiled.
Vilkos wasn’t a man given to nervousness or fear, but his wolf didn’t like that smile.
The atmosphere thickened with tension and anticipation. Shisti pulled at the laces on the front of her dress and let it slide to the floor. Naked, she paced toward him. He half-rose, cock hardening as his body readied to take his mate.
"No need to stand on my account." Waves of magic pulsed from Shisti, the air pushing him into his seat.
"In fact..." More power flowed from Shisti as she waved one hand. "All of you stay exactly where you are."
The men of the Wild Hunt slammed back in their chairs, twitching as they fought her control. Vilkos couldn't help a sense of admiration. His mate needed to be strong or the Wild Hunt wouldn't respect her. But she shouldn't be using her magic on him.
Shisti strode across the room, bare feet sure as she traversed the roots to his chair and straddled his lap, her hands going to the buttons of his pants to free his dick.
Taking his length in her soft hand, she stroked him to fully erect, then leaned forward. Her warm breath drifted across his ear as she whispered, "I was going to use your body like you used mine. Make you feel helpless while I pleasured myself."
That was fine as long as she got on with things and fucked him. She couldn't remain this powerful all the time. He'd catch her again and punish her. This was the sort of game he liked. Hunter and prey — especially when the prey was clever.
"But, you'd like that, and I think you need a lesson.” She cupped a breast and lifted it to her mouth, sliding her tongue over the soft mound as she rolled her nipple in her fingers.
Vilkos tensed every muscle he had, focused his will and strength, and yanked against the magic restraining him. One arm moved a fraction of an inch.
Shisti noticed, flicked her eyes back to his and gave him another one of those smiles he didn’t like. Her eyes half closed as she slid a hand down her body and pushed two fingers into her cunt. She brought herself to orgasm quickly, back arching, head thrown back.
Turning in his lap, she faced the Wild Hunt, not him, as she spread her legs. She let them see her tits and cunt while all he saw was the back of her head.
Shisti rode him, gliding her slick pussy along his dick, holding him in one hand, but never taking him inside. She gave herself over to her desires. Moans she'd never offered him echoed around the room. She thrust and rotated her hips with abandon.
The sound of her wetness as she worked to bring herself to orgasm again teased his ears. The musky scent of her sex filled his nose.
Every man in the room groaned and grunted. All eyes fixed on his mate as she writhed atop him.
“You’re going to come. They’re all going to come.” Shisti panted, speaking the words in a throaty voice full of lust. She glanced at him over her shoulder. Her pupils dilated, and she inhaled deep. “I’m going to come.”
Shisti’s glowing skin brightened until he had to squint while he watched her.
Her magic built to impossible levels. Where was she getting so much power? It was hard to breathe. Hard to think. All he could do was feel her fingers gripping him tighter. The strokes jerked him faster.
Unable to resist anymore, his balls drew up and his dick emptied into her hand. Snarls, howls, and grunts told him every man had just done the same thing.
She released her hold on him and held up her dripping hand. As he watched, her skin absorbed his seed until her glowing skin was once again pristine.
That felt like the biggest violation of the night. Power games were one thing. Being forced to watch her… feeding on his essence was something completely different.
Her cold grey eyes met his. "So, perhaps now you understand the difference between an orgasm and pleasure."
Shisti climbed off his lap, leaving him full of rage and dissatisfaction. Unashamed and unrepentant, she gracefully descended the roots, stooped to lift her dress from the floor, and covered her nakedness. As her fingers tied the laces to secure her dress, she ran her eyes around the room.
"Gentlemen, feel free to smell me now." She inclined her head toward him, eyes landed on his cock, glistening with copious evidence of her orgasms.
"Ladies." She clapped her hands once. "Come along. It's time to go."
The girls, now able to move, held the scraps of their clothing together, scrambled to their feet, and preceded Shisti as she sauntered out the door without a backward glance.
Vilkos fought against the air still binding him to his seat. His emotions were clear now.
He'd known he was playing with fire. But it was Shisti who would burn for this.
Dayiel trudged along the sandy road. It wasn't much of a road, just a slightly flatter place among dunes. Wind constantly blew loose sand across the track. Only regular caravans left signs of a route marking here to there.
With sunset close, the scorching afternoon temperature settled into a cooler range as the sands changed from golden to rose hues. Although, even in the hottest part of the day, he didn't sweat in his leathers and armor. His skin didn't burn. He didn't sleep, eat, or feel thirst. He walked day and night with no destination, just a direction. There was no logical reason. Just an absolute certainty that this way led to Azar.
Footsteps thundered behind him, and a man shouted, "Dayiel!"
He drew his sword and spun in one motion. Two lines seared down his back, one on either side of his spine. The strange, fiery phenomenon occured whenever he readied for a fight. A memory of an injury, maybe?
In the week since he'd left his home, holding the blade in his hand had become natural. His memories hadn't returned, even though his blinding headaches were growing worse and more frequent, but he could defend himself. That gave him hope he'd be able to fight for Azar when he found her.
The man running toward him was big. As tall as Dayiel's six-and-a-half foot height, but broader across the shoulders, and dark where Dayiel was fair-haired and light-eyed. The man's name escaped Dayiel, but he recognized him. He lived near Dayiel's old home, but was dressed all wrong. Instead of farmer's clothes, he wore black leather. A wide, curved sword hung at his hip.
He came to a stop in front of Dayiel. Out of breath, he braced his hands on his knees and squinted up at Dayiel. "You set a brisk pace, my friend. And no notice you were leaving! Some people might think you didn't want my company."
Did he want this man's company? "I know you."
"Yes, Dayiel. I'm Zrel." He spoke in the patient tone people used when they were explaining something they'd explained to him before. Standing, Zrel put his hands on his hips and twisted from side to side. "Do you remember?"
Dayiel nodded. Given the name, he recalled being told the same name before. "I saw you in the village. What are you doing here?"
"Oh." Zrel's shoulders sagged. "It's been a long time since I saw you dressed like..." He flapped a hand at Dayiel's armor "That. I thought you remembered, um, before."
"You knew me… before?" Maybe Zrel could help with his memory. At the thought of remembering, a spike of agony pierced his skull behind his left eye. Dayiel turned and walked rapidly. If he didn't think so much, the headache might go away.
Zrel jogged alongside him. "We've known each other longer than either of us cares to remember, even if you could remember. Which of course, you can't. We're friends."
Friends. Some people in the village weren't as judgmental, but he couldn't call them friends. Could he? Zrel hadn't moved to draw his sword.
Dayiel sheathed his blade as he walked in the direction that led to Azar.
Zrel kept pace. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know. I have to find Azar."
"Your daughter?" Zrel grabbed Dayiel's arm, bringing him to a halt. "What happened? There wasn't any news in the village."
Should he have told someone in the village? Dayiel stared between Zrel's hand and face. The man said they were friends. But was that true? If they were friends, why couldn't he remember him from before? And why hadn't they seen each other more? He didn't remember this man ever coming to his house. Or going to his. They'd never shared a drink or a meal.
But the man had traveled for a week to find him, and run all the way. Dayiel hadn't stopped to eat or sleep. If this man was a friend, what could it hurt to tell him? And if he wasn't, how could he make things worse? Azar was already kidnapped.
"The bird stole Azar."
"The… bird? What kind of bird?"
Dayiel nodded, eager to talk about something he remembered so clearly. "He was in the trees. Azar went to talk to the birds. Why must she always talk to the birds?"
"You know why she talks to the birds, Dayiel." Zrel spoke in a soft voice, like people did when they pitied him for his memory problems.
Did he know why Azar talked to the birds? Pain momentarily blinded him and threatened to take him under until he released that thought. It didn't matter anymore. He walked again. "The raven took her and flew away."
"Raven?" Zerel caught up, nodded like that was believable, and sounded relieved. "So, where are we going? Do you know who he is or where he took her?"
Dayiel came to a stop and turned to face Zrel. "Why are you here?"
"What? You don't think I'm going to let you have all the fun, do you? I'm coming with you. Friends don't let friends go to war alone."
He'd known he'd have to fight to save Azar. The raven had taken her. He wasn't likely to just give her back. "Is that what we're doing? Going to war?"
"If not to get your daughter back, we'll have to fight a war to get to her, if you're going where I think you're going."
"Where am I going?"
Zrel sighed. "It's a good thing I'd follow you into Hell, my friend, because that's where we're heading."
Hell. Images of flames and black-winged monsters flitted across his mind before bright, white pain took Dayiel to his knees. He wrenched his thoughts to Azar.
He had to find her. Save her from the birds.
His vision cleared, allowing him to stagger to his feet. Zrel held his arm until Dayiel steadied himself. He studied Zrel's dark eyes, trying to decide if he could be trusted.
"Do you know what I am? Why I can't remember? What causes my back to burn sometimes? How I know how to use a sword?"
Zrel blew out a breath. "Yes. But it might be better if you let your memories return on their own. Too big a shock might be… damaging."
Dayiel laughed and held out his arms. "I'm already damaged! Please. If we are friends, tell me of my past. I think it's better I know."
"I don't think this is the best time to talk." Zrel scanned the sky. "Never can tell who might be loitering."
Invisible people in the sky? Zrel might be crazy, too.
"I'm not losing my mind." Zrel shook a finger at Dayiel. "Look. There's one thing we can try, but you need to pause your journey to do it. It'll probably make you pass out, given what I just saw, and here in the open isn't the place for it." He sighed. "I promised her I would only do this as an absolute last resort."
"Adeen. I promised Adeen when the time came... If the time came, I would help you."
Dayiel's heart beat faster. "You knew Adeen… before?"
"Yes, Dayiel. I've known her as long as you have."
"Adeen died. I remember Adeen died." He would never forget that day of blood and ashes.
"Yeah, yeah." Zrel flapped his hand again. "I know what happened that day."
The words seemed odd. What happened. Not that Adeen died. "What do you know? Did she die? Was that real?"
"It was real, but not the whole truth."
How could something be real but not true? He needed answers. "Why didn't you help me before?"
Zrel's shoulders slumped. "If I help you, everything changes and there's no going back. You could have lost Azar."
"But now I've already lost Azar."
"And Adeen wanted you to help me."
He would do anything for Adeen. She'd never hurt him. If she trusted Zrel, he had to, even if he didn't remember him. "The next village. We'll stop there."
No. How could he be? "Yes."
Impatience made the trip seem even longer, even without stops, but mid-way through the next morning, an oasis village came into view. Brick buildings with roofs made of palm leaves curved halfway around a blue lake. Tall trees offered a bit of shade that unladen camels occupied.
Not the largest or most prosperous, but they'd have somewhere safe and private for whatever happened. The chance to restore his memories seemed too good to be true, but he couldn't wait to try.
Zrel bartered for meals and accommodation, turning over coins to use a house for a few days.
Coins! Dayiel berated himself. He should have brought coins, but he hadn't thought to. He knew he needed money. What had he done with his coins? They might be on the cart at home.
Maybe birds had taken them, too. Azar's ravens liked to steal shiny things.
"Come on, Dayiel." Zrel led the way through the marketplace. The aromas of spices competed with perfumes. Merchants offered bright silks and jewelry. "I've found a house we can use for a few days."
A few days? Uneasiness opened a pit in his stomach. Would he be helpless for so long? Could he trust Zrel? Would Azar get farther away? What about his headaches?
Zrel stopped at a variety of stalls to haggle for wine, bread, cheese, and fruit. "There'll be cooked meals delivered later, but we'll have to fend for ourselves now."
Dayiel ambled along behind his friend, unsure whether to mention he didn't feel hunger or thirst anymore. Purchases completed, Zrel made his way out of the busy part of the village into a quieter residential area. He stopped in front of a small house made of brick that looked like every other house.
"This is us." Zrel pushed the door open and entered.
The furnishings were simple, but appeared srurdy. The main area combined a cooking hearth, dining area, and common seating area comprised of cushions on the time floor. A room at the back was separated by hanging beads and contained two beds.
Dayiel sat on one of the beds and faced Zrel, who sat on the other. "What do I have to do?"
Zrel chuckled. "Right to it, then, I see. You're sure you want to do this? There's no going back."
"I have to. I have to save Azar. I have to remember before. Tell me what happened."
"Your memory is broken because you Fell."
"Fell." That didn't seem like it would cause such extensive memory loss. "Did I injure my head when I… fell?"
"Not that kind of fall." Zrel chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. "You fell in !ove, then Fell to be with Adeen."
Zrel shook his head. "Adeen… you'll see when you remember. And since she was your anchor, your mind broke a bit more when you lost her, but you held it together for Azar. Adeen was proud of you."
"Azar still needs me." Dayiel glared at Zrel. "I need to remember. If I can't save her because my memories are fog and you could have helped me, I will no longer consider us friends."
That earned a grin. "You always were uppity." Zrel reached into a pocket and removed a vial. "Drink this."
Dayiel took the vial, opened it, and sniffed the contents. Nothing he could detect.
"It's water. From the river of memories. Adeen fought through several Underworlds to get the water in case you ever needed to remember. Your wife is one fierce woman."
"Adeen is dead."
"Drink, my friend. You won't believe me if I tell you. See for yourself."
Dayiel put the vial to his lips and downed the contents. White hot agony lanced through his head.
Moon-Clad, Shisti knelt on the thick rug in front of the fireplace in her suite of rooms. She longed to be outside, bare under the night sky. Or in the middle of a storm as wind, thunder, and lightning fed her power. While the Fae had no issue with nakedness, or most kinds of magic, they didn't like witches.
For what she wanted to do, being that much closer to her magic would have been a comfort, but she was used to making do trapped in this pile of black rock.
She drew her athame down her arm. The sharp ritual blade sent a red cascade into the incantation bowl she used for spell work, and the pain focused her on the reason for the magic — an unwanted life growing inside her.
Her visions were never wrong. Fechin would become king, not Vilkos. And she would put him on the throne. That wasn't possible if she was pregnant with Vilkos' child.
Shisti chanted the death magic that would harness the energy as the baby died. Infant deaths contained raw magic. If only she'd had the chance a week ago, on the longest night of the year. That was an especially auspicious time to take power.
Again, she would make do. Her power spun magic around her like a tornado, tearing at the flames, billowing her curtains, and whipping her hair. Shisti directed her power inward, searching for the life that fed on her, and found not one, but two.
The boy felt like a wolf.
The girl, though, did not.
She felt like magic and happiness, and a future of endless possibilities. An unfamiliar sense of protectiveness seized her.
A daughter. Shisti could love a daughter. She would take her away from courts, and intrigue, and manipulative people who would use her. A daughter would love her in return. The two of them would be happy together, and Shisti would do everything possible to protect her.
But first, she had to get rid of this boy. The son who would bind her to Vilkos and give him a chance for the Raven throne.
The first part of her spell finished, Shisti opened her mouth to add the killing words. They wouldn't come. She heard them in her head, but her tongue wouldn't utter the words she needed and they remained stuck as a lump in her throat.
He'd done this to her. Vilkos and his command to protect the child.
She hurled her athame against the wall so hard the blade slid into the stone. In a mindless rage, she threw her bowl of blood into the fire and stormed around her bedroom.
She pressed her hands to her abdomen and willed herself calm. This rage wasn't good for her daughter. She focused on serenity and sent love to her girl.
I will endure this. I will survive, and we will be free. I promise you, my daughter.
Fechin loved her desperately. Or, so he said. But if he loved her, how could he do all those things to her? Why wouldn't he talk to her? He seemed sure to the point of arrogance that she would love him in return, but she didn't now. At least she'd been able to keep that much of herself to herself.
She’d had a life he didn’t understand where she’d had to work hard just to get enough to eat every day, and some days she hadn’t eaten at all. Now she had no worries.
Except for her father. He was alone.
Except she was pregnant.
Except she was a prisoner, unable to remain angry with her kidnapper.
She had to do better.
This man wanted to ransom her father for a child. A baby he'd already created within her. How was she supposed to love someone who would use her body and her love like that?
The rooms were sumptuous, the furnishings lavish. The house she shared with her father would fit in the bedroom alone.
None of it appealed to her.
Especially when she touched the windows and balcony doors, but was rebuffed by a barrier that kept her safely indoors. She wasn't to the point of wanting to kill herself, but being able to go outside would be nice. She threw herself into a chair and thought.
A gentle tap on the door preceded its opening.
"Hello, Smiley." She'd resorted to naming the child-sized men for traits she could see when they'd explained they didn't share their names with anyone. They seemed like to like the nicknames she gave them.
The brownies were the only people she saw other than Fechin in the week since she'd arrived. They kept the fire lit and brought her endless trays of food.
The food, delicious and richer than anything she'd eaten before, could be another trap. What if there was something in it that made her more open to Fechin's suggestions? She couldn't starve herself — she had to keep her strength up — but missing one meal wouldn't hurt her, and it wouldn’t be the first time she’d gone hungry.
She glared at the offerings. Meat. Vegetables. Bread. Cake. Water. Wine.
Azar carried the tray to the window. She couldn't leave, but air entered. Maybe the food could get out. She tore the bread into bits and tossed a scrap at the window. It passed through the barrier and landed on the balcony.
She'd have to throw harder, or she'd have a pile of evidence showing her rebellion. Fechin would probably insist on watching her eat in order to protect his child.
Azar angrily hurled a second piece of bread. It arched over the balcony. A dark shape swooped through the air and snatched it out of the air. A raven!
The bird landed on the railing and devoured its snack. It cawed, and more black birds perched along the balcony.
Azar cut everything into bite-sized pieces. As she prepared to fling the food outside, the ravens swooped into her room instead. They helped themselves to everything on the tray. She eyed the door in case Fechin returned, but the food was gone in no time.
One bird dipped his beak into the wine goblet. Azar laughed. "I don't think you should drink that." She gently pushed his beak away and poured the beverage down the sink in the bathroom.
Azar stroked soft feathers on glossy heads. "Thank you for your assistance. This had to be just between us, all right?"
Laughter answered her.
“See you at dinner?”
The ravens cawed and flew out the balcony doors.
Did she feel differently now? Not physically, but she'd have to wait for Fechin to return to test her theory.
Azar stared out over the forest yet again. She would learn nothing about this place if she remained trapped in this tower. She had to get out of this room and figure out where she was if she had any chance of escaping and finding her father.
Wherever this place was. It was far from the desert oasis of her home. From her windows, she had a view of the ocean, miles of trees, and even snowy mountains in the distance.
She tried to ignore the opulence of the castle. She'd agreed not to fight, not that she wouldn't try to escape. It was merely a redirection. Like Fechin used sex with her. It had to seem real, though.
With a sigh, she opened the door to the closet and examined the array of fancy, expensive clothing awaiting her. If she sold a single one of these gowns, she’d have enough money to feed her father and herself for a month, easily. And there were so many.
Azar ran her fingers over the soft material. Some of the dresses looked too complicated. There was no way to get them on by herself. She pulled off her tunic and trousers. Settling on a green dress with only a few laces in the front, she lifted it from the hangar and slipped it over her head. The shiny material whispered over her body and swirled around her ankles.
The mirror showed her a girl trying to play dress up, and she frowned at herself. Is that what Fechin would see? That wouldn’t help. She went into the bathroom and opened drawers until she found some combs adorned with brilliant green stones. Fancy hairdos proved to be harder to figure out than elaborate dresses, but she managed some twists that didn’t look too ridiculous. A little color on her lips and cheeks, and she was done.
She practiced walking in a pair of high-heeled slippers so she didn’t fall on her face until dinnertime, when Smiley delivered another tray.
He gave her a friendly smile. “You look very nice, Azar.” He winked. “Green is Fechin’s favorite color.”
“Thank you.” It was reassuring that she didn’t look preposterous, but the Brownies probably would never say so, even if she did.
After he departed, she ignored the tray. She could always throw the food out the window later, if it came to that. She wrapped a blanket around herself and stood by the window to wait for her captor.
The door opened without a knock and closed with a click. Azar didn't bother to look up. It was Fechin. He never knocked, and his presence surrounded her.
"You've not touched your meal." He sighed. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't fight anymore."
She turned to face him and let the blanket drop to the floor.
He stared at her. While he didn’t speak, his eyes ran up and down the length of her, like she was dinner.
Azar walked toward him, pleased when she didn’t twist her ankle. "I don't want to fight, but I want to leave this room. If you want me to eat, take me somewhere else."
"You keep me here, come in for sex, and leave me alone again. If you want to have any chance of making me happy here, I want to meet others. I want at least the freedom to go to a library, or the kitchen, or anywhere else than the room you keep your bed in, because right now, it seems like that's all I'm here for."
He flinched like she’d slapped him.
Azar put a hand on his arm. It was the first time she'd touched him on her own. He realized it too, judging by his intake of breath and widened eyes. "I’m trying to meet you halfway, but you have to compromise, too. If I'm truly not a prisoner, don't treat me like one."
He stared at her hand on his forearm, then raised his eyes to meet hers. “Very well. Tonight, we will eat in one of the dining rooms with a few guests.”
Shisti strode through the rooms, gardens, and corridors, a beatific smile firmly in place. She'd been brought up to never show any annoyance, discomfort, or sadness. None of the courtiers she passed would know how her fury simmered beneath the surface of her skin.
Fury at Vilkos. The rape she could forgive. That was only about power after all, and she'd channeled that sex magic even as he thought he held all the control. She'd been nearly drunk on the level of energy created between them by the time his rut ended.
No, her fury was at the control he still wielded over her. As soon as she freed herself from his compulsion, he would regret daring to touch her, and he would die for planting a child in her womb.
Every time Vilkos had used her body while he was in his mindless rut, he thought he was dominating her. Overpowering her, but the magic he used to hold her down and fuck her, she saved, and would use to fuck him in the end.
Sex, blood, and death were the strongest ways to fuel magic. The life inside her — created by sex, it held Vilkos' blood, and would soon die.
When the time came, she would harness it to kill him.
Courtiers’ whispers carried on tendrils of listening spells reached her ears.
A woman. The king has a consort! She's beautiful. An heir! Fechin will be king!
What was all this? She and Fechin had a deal. Casting an illusion over herself, she tracked the whispers through the palace to a private dining room and entered one of the secret corridors that riddled the palace. Servants used them to remain out of sight. Shisti had discovered them when one had attempted to escape passing her in the hall and hadn’t been quite fast enough to disappear before she saw him.
Shisti nearly lost control of her emotions as she peered through the spyhole and caught sight of the woman sitting next to Fechin.
His little whore smelled like sex.
Shisti knew Fechin's scent. She'd scrubbed it off her own skin often enough.
He'd broken their bargain.
That meant she was free to kill whoever she liked.
Fechin touched the woman's cheek and smiled at her.
He'd never smiled at her at all, much less like that. One man had, before her father made him disappear. Tears sprang to her eyes, shocking her. She thought she’d cried for the last time years ago.
She watched them throughout the otherwise boring dinner, like hundreds of dinners before.
Fechin hadn't just had sex with Azar. He loved her.
And Azar… she did not love him. She tolerated his touch, but her face was a mask. Shisti recognized the false emotions. She’d worn them, too.
Shisti hid the laughter bubbling up inside her behind the tiniest of smiles. While the broken bargain allowed her to kill this consort of his, there was some fun to be had here if she kept the girl alive.
She could always kill Azar later. After Fechin had fallen even deeper in love. When it would hurt all the more and Fechin least expected it. After she turned the woman Fechin loved against him.
Some things were worth waiting for, and sips of revenge over time were something to savor.
From his place at the table, Fechin watched out for Shisti. Not seeing her at dinner surprised him. The two of them had long since stopped keeping a pretense of civility between them. He dined alone or with courtiers while she dined in her rooms. But he’d been sure Shisti would hear about Azar and some dramatics would ensue.
He'd broken their bargain. She was free to murder again, and he had the sinking sensation the witch planned to start with Azar. His magic was strongest here in the palace. Shisti was powerful, but he could trap her behind some wards. She would escape eventually, but one Azar gave birth to his heir, he would come into his full power as king. Then he could banish Shisti from court forever.
Azar chatted with the Elf, Selkie, and Trow around her, as at ease and friendly with them as she was standoffish with him. The Brownies had fallen in love with her from the moment they'd met her, much like he had. Despite her ire with him, she'd been only kind to them.
Kidnapping her wasn't the best start to their relationship, but he was as much a prisoner of circumstances as she was in Inisfail. The idea of siring his heirs with anyone else didn't appeal. She was his choice.
As the meal progressed, Azar lost some of her icy demeanor toward him, even accepting a bite of food from his plate. In addition to dressing in clothes he’d picked for her, those were the first signs of a thaw from her, and he cherished them. Now they could build a genuine relationship between them.
After the dessert course, he leaned toward her. "I'd like to show you a place special to me. Will you come?" Azar nodded and put her hand in his.
She looked much happier. A glow to her skin and a sparkle in her eyes. He had doubts about bringing her in public with the dangers all around her, but it had been the right thing to do.
He led her through acres of gardens to a door at the base of the ravens’ tower. She was breathless when they arrived at the top of the steps.
He opened the door and held it for her. She scooted past him into the room.
"Ravens." She gave him a genuine smile — the first since he'd brought her to Inisfail Fae territory.
“I know you like birds. The ravens live here. The largest one is called Mischief, and this is Tricks. The tower is off-limits to everyone but me, and now you.”
Azar moved easily among them, and the birds accepted her attentions, fluffing their feathers and holding out their wings, bumping each other to get more caresses. Fechin could relate. What he wouldn't give for her to touch him as freely.
A brownie entered the tower room, gave Azar a bashful smile as he waved.
"Hello, Smiley. You look nice in your uniform." He'd even combed his hair. The little man's wizened cheeks flushed at her compliments.
"Your Highness, the Merrow and the Selkie have been waiting for an audience. But you've been busy, and they say they won't wait anymore. If you won't see them, they'll go to war."
Fechin closed his eyes and searched for patience, blowing out a breath. He had to deal with this now. "I must attend to a small matter that cannot wait. Stay here until I return for you." She should be happy enough among the birds. Hopefully, this wouldn't take long and they could return to a pleasant evening.
He changed to his raven form and leapt out the window. Flight was the quickest way to the throne room. When he arrived, two men were toe to toe, angry faces a scant inch from one another as they yelled.
The Merrow had long hair in shades of green, and the Selkie had sable coloring. Both were red-faced from yelling.
"Your rapist son stole my daughter's pelt and kidnapped her!" the Selkie shouted.
"Your whore of a daughter seduced my son." the Merrow bellowed in return. "You whores steal our people like you stole our land!"
"We stole nothing! We’ve tried to live in peace. If you don’t like us so close, you're welcome to slaughter the satyrs. We had to leave our territory! They were selling us into slavery!"
Fechin resisted the urge to knock their skulls together. "Where are this Merrow son and Selkie daughter now?"
"Gone.” the Selkie snarled. “I've just received word of my daughter's kidnapping."
The Merrow snorted. "No one had to kidnap her! I've seen her mooning over my son."
"Enough!" Fechin paced. It sounded like the son and daughter had run off together. It was an excellent plan — one he wished he could duplicate with Azar.
Fortunately, the Merrow and Selkie were both Seelie, and would listen to him. "If they've gone missing recently, they can't have gone far. I’ll alert my army to find them, and bring them to me." While he said the right words to appease the angry fathers, he hoped the couple had covered their tracks well enough to remain hidden.
I must attend to a small matter that cannot wait. Stay here until I return for you.
Azar bristled as she repeated the words in a mocking falsetto. Her prison had expanded, but it was still a prison.
She pressed her hand to each window in turn, fingers coming into contact with the invisible barrier that kept her inside. This was an opportunity, though, and she wouldn't waste it. She needed to know where to go when a chance presented itself. Surely not every exit was blocked to her.
Would these birds talk to her like the ones at home? "Will you show me what you've seen?" The largest bird, Mischief, hopped to her.
Azar closed her eyes. Images of a vast forest filled her mind as the raven swooped after a headless man riding a horse. The raven cackled a sound a lot like laughter as the man swing a whip made of bones at her.
"You think that's funny, do you?" The man’s head, cradled in the crook of one of his arms, glared at the raven.
One by one, more birds shared their memories of the landscapes they flew over. No desert oasis. Where had Fechin brought her? She'd never make it home on foot if it was too far for a bird to fly.
New anger at Fechin sent heat through her blood.
Heedless of his orders to stay put, Azar left the birds, her temporary newfound acceptance of her circumstances vanishing.
He'd brought her so far away.
He'd never let her go.
And now she couldn't find her way home.
At the bottom of the steps, she held a hand to the door, elated when the expected barrier wasn't there. She entered the garden, wandering through the green trees, and black and red flowers. Her path meandered, taking her by several fountains and a pond with a wooden bridge spanning its width.
Azar sat on a bench in front of the pond, reluctant to return inside. The gardens weren't a forest, but seeing the open sky overhead and the trees around her made her feel less of a prisoner.
She kicked off the uncomfortable shoes, drew her legs to her chest, and rested her chin on her knees.
"May I join you?"
Azar jerked her head up. A woman with silvery hair, grey eyes, and a blue hue to her skin stood next to the bench. "You're beautiful. Like you’re made from stars."
She flushed as the woman stiffened. Had she said the wrong thing? This lady in front of her carried herself with confidence. She wouldn't have to wonder how to put on any of the gowns in Azar's closet, or how to make her hair elegant. She felt like a simpleton next to this woman’s sophistication.
Abruptly, Azar realized she hadn't answered the woman's question and indicated the bench. "I apologize if I offended you. Please sit down. I’m Azar."
"My name is Shisti." The woman sank gracefully onto the bench.
Dinner was nice, but full of men who simpered and were probably only nice to her because they wanted to impress Fechin. This was Azar’s chance to make an actual friend.